OLD MAN CURRY
Race Track Stories
CHARLES E. VAN LOAN
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THE BOOKS OF CHARLES E. VAN LOAN Memorial Edition
OLD MAN CURRY STORIES OF THE RACE TRACK
WITH INTRODUCTION BY L. B. YATES
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OLD MAN CURRY
Race Track Stories
CHARLES E. VAN LOAN
Introduction by L. B. Yates
New York George H. Doran Company MCMXIX
Copyright, 1917, by George H. Doran Company
Copyright, 1915-6, by P. F. Collier & Son, Incorporated
Printed in the United States of America
My Dear "Purdue" McCormick:—
It is customary to dedicate a book, the author selecting a good natured person to stand sponsor for his work. There are 100,000,000 people in this country, and I have selected you as Old Man Curry's godfather. When you reflect upon this statistical statement, the size of the compliment should impress you.
Then too, you love a good horse—I have often heard you say so. You love a good horse in spite of the fact that you once harnessed Colonel Jack Chinn's thoroughbred saddle animal to a trap, the subsequent events producing a better story than any you will find in these pages. Nevertheless, my dear sir, they are respectfully, even firmly dedicated to you.
Yours very sincerely, CHARLES E. VAN LOAN
To E. O. McCormick, San Francisco, Cal.
BY L. B. YATES
It is one of life's tragedies that as we go along we realize the changes that come upon almost everything with which we used to be associated. And this is noticeable not only in ordinary affairs, whether it be in business or in the home, but it obtrudes itself upon the sports or pastimes which we most affected in the days when some of us had more time or a greater predilection to indulge in them.
We so often go back to an old stamping ground expecting to find old friends or to meet the characters which to a great extent added to the charm of local coloring, and nothing disappoints us more than to find that they have all either gone the way of the earth or changed their manner of living and habitat.
I think this is brought more forcibly to mind when we view the turf activities of an earlier generation as compared with those more modern, because nowadays the game is played differently all around and doesn't look the same from the viewpoint of one who loved the spectacular and quaint figures that so distinguished what we might call the Victorian Era of American racing.
The sport of emperors has to a great extent become the pastime of King Moneybags. And there is no place for ancient crusaders like Old Man Curry, so he has taken the remnants of his stable and gone back to the farm or merged into the humdrum and neutral tinted landscape which always designates the conventional and ordinary.
He doesn't fit in any more. The cost of maintaining a racing stable is almost ten times greater than it was in the days when he and his kind went up and down the country making the great adventure. Racing has been systematized and ticketed and labeled in such a way that it is only very rich men who can afford to indulge in it. The tracks west of Louisville are all closed. The skeleton hand of the gloom distributor has put padlocks on the gates. Even if Old Man Curry was with us to-day, his sphere of action would be limited, unless he elected to play a game where the odds would be so immeasurably against him that he would be beaten long before he started.
So it is that when Charlie Van Loan went away, he bequeathed to us the records of a peculiar nomadic people which are now almost like the argonauts and whose manner of living and happy-go-lucky ways are but a memory. It is strange that although the turf has always formed a prolific medium for writing people and has lent itself admirably to fiction, very few authors seem to have taken advantage of the opportunities offered.
As in other branches of sport, Van Loan was quick to see this and he gave us story after story of the kind that men love to read and chuckle over and retail to the first man they meet. And so when you peruse the pages of Old Man Curry's book, you will find Charlie Van Loan at his very best. When one says that it means you will follow a trail blazed by one of the most masterly short story writers we ever had. Better yet, he writes about real people and they do real believable things. You are not asked to stretch your imagination or endeavor to form an excuse for the happening as portrayed. You will find it all logical and you will be able to follow the old man and the biblically named horses from track to track and from adventure to adventure, until you finally lay the book aside and tell yourself what a bully time you had reading it and how humorous and human and wholly entertaining every page of it was.
And to all this I might perhaps add something of my regard for the Charlie Van Loan I knew and how we foregathered and enjoyed the old days when we were brother carpenters on a western newspaper, and how out of the close association of many years I formed an affectionate regard for him and realized how thoughtful and kindly and big in heart and brain he really was. But in life he was not the kind that sought or cared for adulation or fulsome expression of regard either spoken or written. So I had better hark back to the narratives of Old Man Curry and his connections, bidding you enjoy them to the limit, and assuring you that they need no eulogy from me or any one else. They speak for themselves.
PAGE LEVELLING WITH ELISHA 13
PLAYING EVEN FOR OBADIAH 45
BY A HAIR 68
THE LAST CHANCE 99
SANGUINARY JEREMIAH 128
ELIPHAZ, LATE FAIRFAX 150
THE REDEMPTION HANDICAP 175
A MORNING WORKOUT 198
EGYPTIAN CORN 223
THE MODERN JUDGMENT OF SOLOMON 247
OLD MAN CURRY
LEVELLING WITH ELISHA
The Bald-faced Kid shivered as he roosted on the paddock fence, for the dawn was raw and cold and his overcoat was hanging in the back room of a pawnbroker's establishment some two hundred miles away. Circumstances which he had unsuccessfully endeavoured to control made it a question of the overcoat or the old-fashioned silver stop watch. The choice was not a difficult one. "I can get along without the benny," reflected the Kid, "because I'm naturally warm-blooded, but take away my old white kettle and I'm a soldier gone to war without his gun."
In the language of the tack rooms, the Bald-faced Kid was a hustler—a free lance of the turf, playing a lone hand against owner and bookmaker, matching his wits against secret combinations and operating upon the wheedled capital of the credulous. He was sometimes called a tout, but this he resented bitterly, explaining the difference between a tout and a hustler. "A tout will have six suckers betting on six different horses in the same race. Five of 'em have to lose. A tout is guessing all the time, but a hustler is likely to know something. One horse a race is my motto—sometimes only one horse a day, but I've got to know something before I lead the sucker into the betting ring.... What is a sucker? Huh! He's a foolish party who bets money for a wise boy because the wise boy never has any money to bet for himself!"
Picking winners was the serious business of the Kid's life, hence the early morning hours and the careful scrutiny of the daybreak workouts.
Bitter experience had taught the Kid the error of trusting men, but up to a certain point he trusted horses. He depended upon his silver stop watch to divide the thoroughbreds into two classes—those which were short of work and those which were ready. The former he eliminated as unfit; the latter he ceased to trust, for the horse which is ready becomes a betting tool, at the mercy of the bookmaker, the owner, and the strong-armed little jockey.
"Which one are they going to bet on to-day?" was the Kid's eternal question. "Which one is going to carry the checks?"
Across the track, dim in the gray light, a horse broke swiftly from a canter into the full racing stride. Something clicked in the Kid's palm.
"Got you!" he muttered.
His eye followed the horse up the back stretch into the gloom of the upper turn where the flying figure was lost in the deep shade of the trees. One shadow detached itself from the others and appeared at the head of the straightaway. The muffled thud of hoofs became audible, rising in swift crescendo as the shadow resolved itself into a gaunt bay horse with a tiny negro boy crouched motionless in the saddle. A rush, a flurry, a spatter of clods, a low-flying drift of yellow dust and the vision passed, but the Bald-faced Kid had seen enough to compensate him for the early hours and the lack of breakfast. He glanced at his watch.
"Old Elisha, under wraps and fighting for his head," was his comment. "The nigger didn't let him out any part of the way.... Oh, you prophet of Israel!"
"What did that bird step the three-quarters in?" asked a voice, and the Kid turned to confront Squeaking Henry, also a hustler, and at times a competitor.
"Dunno; I didn't clock him," lied the Kid.
"That was Old Man Curry's nigger Mose," continued Squeaking Henry, so-called because of his plaintive whine, "and I was wondering if the horse wasn't Elijah. I didn't get a good look at him. Maybe it was Obadiah or Nehemiah. Did you ever hear such a lot of names in your life? They tell me Old Man Curry got 'em all out of the Bible." The Kid nodded. "Bible horses are in fine company at this track," chuckled Squeaking Henry. "I been here a week now, and darned if I can get onto the angles. I guess Old Man Curry is the only owner here who ain't doin' business with some bookmaker or other. Look at that King William bird yesterday! He was twenty pounds the best in the race and he come fifth. The jock did everything to him but cut his throat. What are you goin' to do when they run 'em in and out like that?... Say, Kid, was that Elijah or was it another one of them Bible beetles? I didn't get a good look at him."
The Bald-faced Kid stole a sidelong glance at Squeaking Henry.
"Neither did I," said he. "Why don't you ask Old Man Curry which horse it was? He'd tell you. He's just foolish enough to do it."
Halfway up the back stretch a shabby, elderly man leaned against a fence, thoughtfully chewing a straw as he watched the little negro check the bay horse to a walk. He had the flowing beard of a patriarch, the mild eye of a deacon, the calm, untroubled brow of a philosopher, and his rusty black frock coat lent him a certain simple dignity quite rare upon the race tracks of the Jungle Circuit. In the tail pocket of the coat was something rarer still—a well-thumbed Bible, for this was Old Man Curry, famous as the owner of Isaiah, Elijah, Obadiah, Esther, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Elisha, Nehemiah, and Ruth. In his spare moments he read the Psalms of David for pleasure in their rolling cadences and the Proverbs of Solomon for profit in their wisdom, which habit alone was sufficient to earn for him a reputation for eccentricity.
Old Man Curry clinched this general opinion by entering into no entangling alliances with brother owners, and the bookmaker did not live who could call him friend. He attended strictly to his own business, which was training horses and racing them to win, and while he did not swear, drink liquor, or smoke, he proved he was no Puritan by chewing fine-cut tobacco and betting on his horses when he thought they had a chance to win and the odds were to his liking. For the latter he claimed Scriptural precedent.
"Wasn't the children of Israel commanded to spile the Egyptians?" said he. "Wasn't they? Well, then! the way I figger it times has changed a lot since then, but the principle's the same. There's some children of Israel making book 'round here that need to be spiled a heap worse'n Pharaoh ever did." Then, after thought: "But you got to go some to spile bad eggs." As the little negro drew near, the blackness of his visage was illuminated by a sudden flash of ivory. Elisha snorted and shook his head from side to side. Old Man Curry stepped forward and laid his hand upon the bridle.
"Well, Mose?" said he. The small rider gurgled as he slipped from the saddle:
"Nothin' to it, nothin' to it a-a-atall. 'Is 'Lisha bird, he's ready to fly. Yes, suh, he's prepaihed to show all 'em otheh hawsses which way 'is track runs!"
"Went good, did he, Mose?"
"Good! He like to pull my ahms off, 'at's how good he went! Yes, suh, he was jus' buck-jumpin' all 'e way down 'at stretch. 'Ey kin all be in front of him tuhnin' fo' to-morreh, an' he'll go by 'em so fas' 'ey won't know which way he went!"
Old Man Curry nodded. "Elisha ain't no front runner," said he. "He's like his daddy—does all his running in the last quarter. He comes from behind."
"Sure does!" chirped Mose. "All I got to do is fetch him into 'e stretch, swing wide so he got plenty of room to ambulate hisse'f, boot him once in 'e slats, an'—good night an' good-by! Ol 'Lisha jus' tip his to 'em otheh hawsses an' say: ''Scuse me, gen'elmen an' ladies, but I got mos' uhgent business down yondeh 'bout quahteh of a mile; 'em judges waitin' faw me.' 'At's what he say, boss. Nothin' to it a-a-atall."
"Give him plenty of room, Mose."
"Sutny will. Won't git me nothin' stickin' on 'at rail. 'Em white bu'glahs don't seem to crave me nohow, no time; 'ey jus' be tickled to death to put me an' 'Lisha oveh 'e fence if we git clost 'nough to it. Yes, indeed; I 'low to give 'is hawss all 'e room whut is on a race track!"
Old Man Curry led Elisha toward his barn, the little negro trailing behind, addressing the horse in terms of endearment. "You ol' wolf, on'iest way to beat you to-morreh is to saw all yo' laigs off. You as full of run as a hydrant, 'at's whut you are, ain't you, 'Lisha?"
Two horsemen were standing in the door of a feed room as the queer procession passed. They interrupted a low-toned conversation to exchange significant glances. "Speak of the devil," said one, "and there he goes now. Been working that horse for the last race to-morrow."
"It won't get him anything," said the other. "You can forget that he's entered."
The first speaker was short and stout, with no personal beauty to be marred by the knife scar which ran from the lobe of his left ear to the point of his chin, a broad, red welt in the blackish stubble of his beard. This was Martin O'Connor, owner of the Sunrise racing stable, sometimes know as Grouchy O'Connor.
His companion was a smooth-faced, dapper, gold-toothed blond, apparently not more than twenty-five years of age. Innocence circled his sleek towhead like a halo; good cheer radiated from him in ceaseless waves. His glance was direct and compelling and his smile invited confidences; he seemed almost too young and entirely too artless for his surroundings. The average observer would have pitied him for a lamb among wolves, and the pity would have been misplaced, for Al Engle was older than he looked by several sinful semesters and infinitely wiser than he had any honest right to be. His frank, boyish countenance was at once a cloak and an asset; it had beguiled many a man to his financial hurt. He was shrewd, intelligent, unscrupulous, and acquisitive; the dangerous head of a small clique of horse owners which was doing its bad best to remove the element of chance from the sport of kings. In his touting days he had been given the name of the Sharpshooter and in his prosperity it clung to him.
"Forget that he's entered, eh?" repeated O'Connor. "Elisha—Elisha—I don't seem to place that horse."
"His name used to be Silver Star," said the Sharpshooter.
"That dog?" said O'Connor, disgustedly. "Let's see; wasn't he at Butte last season?"
"Yes. Cricket Caley owned him."
"The little old jock that died last spring?"
"Same one. This horse Silver Star was all he had and Cricket used to ride him himself. Rank quitter. I've seen Caley boot and kick and slash this bird until he wore himself out; he'd quit just the same. Wouldn't run a lick after he got into the stretch.
"Then one day Cricket slipped him over at a long price. Don't know how he did it. Hop, most likely. Got somebody to bet on Silver Star at 25 to 1 and took quite a little chunk of money out of the ring. That was Caley's last race; he'd been cheating the undertakers for years. Before he died he gave the horse to Old Man Curry. They'd been friends, but if a friend of mine gave me a horse like that and didn't throw in a dog collar, he couldn't run fast enough to get away from me. Curry put in an application to the Jockey Club and had the name changed from Silver Star to Elisha. Won't have anything but Bible names, the old nut!
"Curry hasn't won with him yet, and I'd hate to be hanging by the neck until he does, because if ever there was a no-account hound masquerading with a mane and tail, it's the one you just saw go by here. He won't gather anything to-morrow. Forget him."
O'Connor hesitated a moment; he was a cautious soul. "Might tell Grogan and Merritt to look after him," he suggested.
"No need to. And that bullet-headed little nigger wouldn't like anything better than a chance to holler to the judges. The horse ain't got a chance, I tell you. Wouldn't have with the best rider in the world. Forget him."
"Well—just as you say, Al. Broadsword's good enough to beat him, I reckon."
"Of course he is! Forget this Elisha. Go on and figure just the same as if he wasn't in the race."
The Sharpshooter and his friends, through their betting commissioners, backed Broadsword from 4 to 1 to even money. The horse was owned by O'Connor and ridden by Jockey Grogan. Bald Eagle, Amphion, and Remorseful were supposed to be the contenders, but their riders jogged blithely to the post with Broadsword tickets in their bootlegs and riding orders of a sort to make those pasteboards valuable.
Jockey Moseby Jones, on Elisha, was overlooked when these favours were surreptitiously distributed, but his bootleg was not empty. There was a ticket in it which called for twenty-two dollars in case Elisha won—a two-dollar bet at 10 to 1. It was put there by Old Man Curry just before the bugle blew.
"Bring him home in front, Mose," said the old man.
"Sutny will!" grinned the negro. "You betting much on him, boss?"
"I visited a while with the children of Israel," said Curry gravely. "Remember now—lots of room when you turn for home."
"Yes, suh. I won't git clost 'nough to 'em scound'els faw 'em do nothin' but say 'Heah he comes' an' 'Yondeh he goes.' Won't slam me into no fence; I'm comin' back by ovehland route!"
Later O'Connor, who had been bidden to forget Elisha, remembered him. Broadsword led into the stretch by four open lengths, hugging the rail. Mose trailed the bunch around the upper turn, brought Elisha smartly to the outside, kicked the bay horse in the ribs with his spurs and said:
"Whut yo' doin' heah? Go 'long about yo' business!"
Jockey Grogan, already spending his fifty-dollar ticket, heard warning yells from the rear and sat down to ride, but it was too late. Elisha, coming with a tremendous rush, was already on even terms with Broadsword. Three strides and daylight showed between them. It was all over but the shouting, and there was very little of that, for Elisha had few friends in the crowd.
"Hah!" ejaculated the presiding judge, tugging at his stubby grey moustache. "Old Man Curry put one over on the boys, or I miss my guess. Yes, sir, he beat the good thing and spilled the beans. Elisha, first; Broadsword, second; that thing of Engle's, third. Serves 'em right! Hah!"
Martin O'Connor standing on the outskirts of the betting ring, searching a limited vocabulary for language with which to garnish his emotions, felt a nudge at his elbow. It was the Sharpshooter.
"Go away from me! Don't talk to me!" sputtered O'Connor. "You make me sick! I thought you said that dog couldn't run! You're a swell prophet, you are, you—you——"
Al Engle smiled as he slipped his binoculars into the case. "I may not be a prophet," said he, "but I'll have one in my barn to-night."
"Oh, nothing, only that's too good a horse for Curry to own. I'm going to take Elisha away from him."
"Going to run him up?"
"As far as the old man will go."
"Well, look out you don't start a selling-race war."
The Sharpshooter sneered. "Curry hasn't got nerve enough to fight us," said he.
Now the "selling race" is an institution devised and created for the protection of owners against owners, the theory being to prevent the running of horses out of their proper class.
An owner, entering a selling race, must set a price upon his horse—let us say five hundred dollars. Should the horse win, it must be offered for sale at that figure, the owner being given the right to protect his property in a bidding contest.
In case the animal changes hands, the original owner receives five hundred dollars, and no more. If the horse has been bid up to one thousand dollars, the racing association shares the run-up with the owner of the horse which finished second. It will readily be seen that this system discourages the practice of entering a two-thousand-dollar horse in a five-hundred-dollar selling race, but it also permits a disgruntled owner to revenge himself upon a rival. Some of the bitterest feuds in turf history have grown out of "selling-race wars."
Little Mose brought Elisha back into the ring, saluted the judges, and, dismounting, began to unsaddle. Old Man Curry came wandering down the track from the paddock gate where he had watched the race. He was chewing a straw reflectively, and the tails of his rusty black frock coat flapped in the breeze like the garment of a scarecrow. Mose, with the saddle, bridle, blanket, and weight pad in his arms, disappeared under the judges' stand where the clerk of the scales weighed him together with his tackle.
The associate judge came out on the steps of the pagoda with a programme in his hand. Mose bounced into view, handed his tackle to Shanghai, Curry's hostler, and started for the jockeys' room, singing to himself out of sheer lightness of heart. He knew what he would do with that twenty-two-dollar ticket. There was a crap game every night at the O'Connor stable.
"All right, judge!" called the clerk of the scales. "Shoot!"
The associate judge cleared his throat, nodded to Old Man Curry, fingered his programme, and began to speak in a dull, slurring monotone, droning out the formula as prescribed for such occasions:
"Elisha—winner'v this race—entered to be sold—four hundred dollars—— Any bids?"
Old Man Curry, leaning against the top rail of the fence, started slightly and turned his eyes in the direction of the sound. The Sharpshooter flashed his gold teeth at him in a cheerful smile. Old Man Curry shrugged his shoulders and rolled the straw from one corner of his mouth to the other. The associate judge looked at him, asking a question with his eyebrows. There was a stir in the crowd about the stand. A bidding contest is always an added attraction.
"Friend, you don't want this hoss," expostulated Old Man Curry, addressing Engle. "He ain't a race hoss; he's a trick hoss. You don't want him."
"What about you, Curry?" asked the associate judge.
"Oh, well," said the old man, slowly. "And five."
Old Man Curry seemed annoyed. He combed his beard with his fingers.
"And five," said he.
Old Man Curry took time for reflection. Then he sighed deeply.
"Maybe you want him worse'n I do, friend," said he. "And five."
Old Man Curry smothered an impatient ejaculation, threw away his straw and ransacked his pockets for his packet of fine-cut.
"Might as well make it a good one while we're at it," said he. "And five."
"One thousand!" said the Sharpshooter, his smile broadening. "Pretty fair price for a trick horse, eh, Curry?"
The old man paused with a generous helping of tobacco halfway to its destination. He regarded Engle with unblinking gravity.
"'The words of his mouth were smoother than butter,' he quoted, 'but war was in his heart.' That's from Psalms, young man.... Now, it's this way with a trick hoss: a lot depends on whether you know the trick or not.... One thousand!... Shucks! Now I know you want him worse'n I do!" Old Man Curry hoisted the tails of his coat, thrust his hands into the hip pockets of his trousers, hunched his shoulders level with his ears and turned away.
"You ain't quitting, are you?" demanded the Sharpshooter.
"Friend," said Old Man Curry, "I ain't even started yet. It appears upon the face of the returns that you have bought one big, red hoss.... A trick hoss. To show you how I feel about it, I'm going to throw in a bridle with him.... Good-by, Elisha. The Philistines have got ye ... for a thousand dollars."
It was dusk and Old Man Curry paced up and down under his stable awning, his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed at a meditative angle. The Bald-faced Kid recalled him to earth by his breezy greeting, and what it lacked in reverence it made up in good will. Old Man Curry and the hustler were friends, each possessing trait which the other respected.
"Well, old-timer, you put airing your lace curtains a little?"
"Eh? What? Oh, good evening, Frank, good evening! I been walking up and down some. You know what it says in Ecclesiastes: 'In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider.' I been considering."
"Uh, huh," said the Bald-faced Kid, falling into step, "and you sure reached out and grabbed some adversity in that third race to-day, what? I had a finnif bet on friend Isaiah—my own money, too; that's how good I thought he was. They pretty near bumped the shoes off him in the back stretch and they had him in a pocket all the way to the paddock gate, and even so, he was only beat about the length of your nose. Adversity is right!" Old Man Curry nodded. "Say," said the Kid, lowering his voice, "I just wanted to tell you that next Tuesday the Engle bunch will be levelling with Elisha."
Curry paused in his stride and eyed the youth intently.
"Who told you?" said he.
"Never you mind," said the Kid, airily. "I'm a kind of a private information bureau and detective agency 'round this track, and my hours are from twelve to twelve, twice a day. I shake hands with the night watchman when he comes on duty and I'm here to give the milkman the high sign in the morning. They tell me things they've seen and heard. I've got a drag with the bartenders and the waiters in the track cafe and the telegraph operator is my pal.
"Now Engle has had Elisha for two weeks. He's started him three times and Elisha hasn't been in the money once. People are saying that when Engle bought the horse he didn't buy the prescription that goes with him.... Don't interrupt me; everybody knows you never had a hop horse in your barn.... It's my notion that Elisha can win any time they get ready to cut him loose for the kopecs. Engle has been cheating with him to get a price and using the change of owners for an alibi. They'll get their price the next time out and clean up a barrel of money. You can gamble on this tip. It's straight as gospel."
"That's pretty straight, son." Old Man Curry squared his shoulders and looked over the Kid's head toward the track, where the empty grand stand loomed dark against the evening sky. "Next Tuesday!" said he. "Just about what I thought ... but tell me, son, why did you bring this to me?"
The Bald-faced Kid laughed harshly.
"Well, maybe it's because you're the only man 'round here that calls me Frank—it's my name and I like to hear it once in a while. Maybe it's because you staked me once when I was broke and didn't take my right eye for security. Maybe it's because I figure we can both get something out of it for ourselves. If Engle is going to cut a melon, we might as well have a knife in it too."
"Ah!" said Old Man Curry, and he paced the entire length of the barn before he spoke again.
"Well, you see, son, it's this way about cutting a melon. You want to be sure it ain't green ... or rotten."
Old Man Curry placed his hand on the Kid's shoulder.
"My boy," said he, kindly, "you make a living by—by sort of advising folks what to bet on, don't you? If they're kind of halting between two opinions, as the Book says, you sort of—help 'em out, eh!"
The Bald-faced Kid grinned broadly.
"I guess that's about the size of it," said he.
"Well, if you've got any reg'lar customers, don't invite 'em to have a slice of Engle's melon next Tuesday. It might disagree with 'em."
"But I don't see how you're going to get away from Elisha! He's fit and ready and right on edge. You can throw out his last three races. He's good enough to win without any framing."
"I know he is, son. Didn't I train him? Now you've told me something that I've been trying to find out, and I've told you something you never could find out. Don't ask me any more.... No use talking, Frank, Solomon was a great man. Some time I hope to have a race hoss fit to be named after him. I've never seen one yet."
"Where does Solomon get in on this proposition?" demanded the youth.
Old Man Curry chuckled.
"You don't read him," he said. "Solomon wrote a lot of advice that hossmen can use. For instance: 'A prudent man foreseeth the evil and hideth himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.' I've told you this Engle melon ain't as ripe as they think it is. You be prudent and don't ask me how I know."
"If the frame-up goes wrong, what'll win?" asked the Kid.
"Well," said the old man, "my hoss Elijah's in that same race, but it's a little far for him. I ain't going to bet anything. Sometimes it comes handy to know these things."
"You spoke an armful then!" said the Kid. "Well, I've got to be going. I'll keep this under my hat."
"So do, son," said Old Man Curry. "So do. Good night."
The Bald-faced Kid reflected aloud as he departed.
"And some people think that old fellow don't know the right way of the track!" he murmured. "Gee! I'd give something to be in with what he's got up his sleeve!"
Old Man Curry was still tramping up and down when little Mose returned from his nightly foray upon the crap games of the neighbourhood. The boy approached silently and with lagging gait, sure signs that fortune had not been kind to him. When the dice behaved well it was his habit to return with songs and improvised dance steps.
"Talk 'bout luck!" said he, morosely. "You know 'at flat-foot Swede whut swipes faw Mist' O'Conneh? Hungry Hanson, 'ey calls him. Well, he goes crazy 'ith 'e heat an' flang 'em bones jus' like he's got 'em ejicated. Done tossed out nine straight licks, boss. Seems to me 'at's mo' luck 'an a Swede ought to have!"
"Mose," said Old Man Curry suddenly, "Job was no hossman."
"I neveh 'cused him of it," replied Mose sulkily.
"A hossman wouldn't have wanted his adversary to write a book. If he'd said make a book, now ... but the best way to get square with an adversary is to have him start a hoss in the same race with you, Mose."
"I'll take yo' word faw it, boss," said Mose. "When you go talkin' 'bout Job an' Sol'mun an' 'em Bible folks, you got me ridin' on a track I don't know nothin' 'bout. Nothin' a-a-atall."
It was Tuesday afternoon and little Mose was struggling into his riding boots. The other jockeys dressed in the jockeys' room at the paddock inclosure, but Mose found it pleasanter to don the silks in the tack room of Old Man Curry's barn, which also served him as a sleeping apartment. The old man sat on the edge of Mose's cot, speaking earnestly and slapping the palm of his left hand with the fingers of his right, as if to lend emphasis to his words.
"The big thing is to get him away from the post. I want Elijah out there in front when you turn for home. With his early speed, he ought to be leading into the stretch. Elisha will come from behind; Engle is smart enough for that. He'll have to pass you somewhere, because Elijah will begin to peter out after he's gone half a mile. Pull in as close to Elisha as you can, but not so close that Merritt can claim a foul, and—you know the rest."
Mose nodded soberly. "Sutny do, boss. But I neveh knowed 'at ol' 'Lisha——"
"That'll do," said Old Man Curry sternly. "There's lots of things you don't know, Mose."
"Yes, suh," said the little negro, subsiding. "Quite a many."
Later the Bald-faced Kid came to Old Man Curry in the paddock.
"Elisha looks awful good," said he, "and they're commencing to set in the checks. He opened at 4 to 1, went up to 6, and they've hammered him down to 2 to 1 now. I hear they're playing the bulk of their money in the pool rooms all over the coast.... Elisha looks as if he could win, eh?"
Old Man Curry combed his beard.
"You can't always tell by the looks of a melon what's inside it, my son."
"Engle is telling everybody that the horse ain't quite ready," persisted the hustler. "Of course they don't want everybody betting on him and spoiling the price."
"He's doing 'em a kindly act without knowing it," said Old Man Curry. "That's 'bout the only way he'll ever do one, Frank, unbeknownst like."
"You're not betting on this one?" asked the Kid.
"Not a thin dime's worth. It's too far for him."
"I give it up." The Kid shook his head, hopelessly. "You're too many for me."
The presiding judge came out on the platform in front of the stand and watched the horses dance along the rail on their way to the post, coats glistening, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring—one of the prettiest sights the turf offers to its patrons. "Merritt on Elisha again," said the judge. "Merritt. Hm-m-m. That young man is entirely too strong in the arms to suit me. It struck me the last three times he rode this horse. But somebody is betting on Elisha to-day. That may make a difference, and if it does, we may have to ask Mr. Sharpshooter Engle a few questions."
"Leave it to him to answer 'em," said the associate judge. "It's the best thing he does. That fellow is like a hickory nut—smooth on the outside, but hard, awfully hard, to get anything out of.... Old Man Curry is in this race with Elijah. Little far for him, isn't it?"
In the very top row of the grand stand Grouchy Martin O'Connor waited for Al Engle. Just as the horses reached the post, the Sharpshooter slipped in, breathless and fumbling at the catch of his binocular case. "He was 6 to 5 when I came through the betting ring," said Engle. "Well, any old price is a good price. He'll roll home."
"He better. He owes me something," growled O'Connor.
"This is where he pays you."
"I hope so."
"I saw Old Man Curry out in the paddock," and Engle smiled at the recollection. "What do you think the old coot said to me?"
"What do I care what an old nut says?"
"Nobody cares, of course, but this was kind of funny. After the horses started for the post he came up to me, solemn as a judge, and says he: 'Remember, I told you this was a trick horse.' Just like that. They ought to have a look at his head. He's got an attic for rent, sure."
"Must have. But what does he mean by that trick-horse stuff? He pulled it on you a couple of times when you ran Elisha up on him."
"Darned if I know. I guess that's just his way of kidding.... Hello! They're off!"
"Yes, and that thing of Curry's got away flying."
"He'll quit about the time he hits the head of the stretch," said Engle. "He gets his mail there.... Merritt has got Elisha in on the rail, taking it easy, as I told him to. Believe me, that baby is some stretch runner!"
"It cost me enough to find it out!" said O'Connor shortly.
Engle peered through his binoculars.
"Unless he breaks a leg, or something"—here O'Connor hastily knocked wood—"we'll clean up," said Engle, critically. "Elisha is fighting for his head—wants to run. I don't care where he is, turning for home. He'll run over that bunch in the last quarter."
"Yes, but look at that Elijah go!" muttered O'Connor.
"Let him go!" said Engle, with a trace of irritation. "He'll come back; he always does. Bet you fifty he's last!"
"Got you!" snapped O'Connor. "You may not know any more about this one than you did about Elisha last month!"
The dots of colour skimmed around the upper turn, one of them so far ahead that it seemed lonely. This was Elijah, burning his early speed, jack-rabbiting ten lengths in front of his field, but beginning to notice his exertions and feel the swift pace.
"'Lijah," remarked little Mose, looking back over his shoulder, "if eveh you finds a race track whut's got a short home stretch in it, you'll be 'notheh Roseben. Sutny will. On'iest trouble 'ith you, 'Lijah, 'em stretches built too long faw you. Put 'e judges' stand up heah whah we is now, an' yo' neveh lose a race!... Uh, huh! Heah come 'Lisha now; 'em otheh jocks lettin' him th'ough on 'e rail.... Come on, honey blossom! We's waitin' faw you. Come on!"
Said the presiding judge: "That thing in front is quitting to nothing ... and here comes Elisha through on the rail.... Yes, he's a real race horse to-day. Better see Engle about this. Have to teach him that he can't run his horses in and out at this track!"
Said Al Engle: "What did I tell you? Running over horses, ain't he? He'll have that Elijah grabbed in a few more jumps.... Take it easy, Merritt! Don't win too far with him!"
Martin O'Connor heaved a great sigh of relief. Like all cautious souls, he never ceased to worry until the last doubt was dispelled. The weary, staggering Elijah was the only barrier between Elisha and the goal. O'Connor's practiced eye saw no menace in that floundering front runner; no danger in a shaft already spent. "He wins! He wins easy!" breathed Martin.
"Just rolls home, I tell you!" said the Sharpshooter, putting away his binoculars. "I knew he would."
By leaps and bounds the stretch-running Elisha overhauled his former stable companion. Poor, tired Elijah was rocking in his gait, losing ground almost as fast as Elisha was gaining it; his race was behind him; he could do no more.
Mose, keeping watch out of the tail of his eye, saw the bay head bobbing close behind. Now it was at Elijah's heels; the next stride would bring it level with the saddle.... The next stride.
All that anyone ever saw was that Jockey Moseby Jones leaned slightly toward the flying Elisha as Merritt drew alongside, and very few spectators saw this much. Who cares to watch a loser when the winner is in sight? Old Man Curry, waiting at the paddock gate, saw the movement and immediately began to search his pockets for tobacco.
Jockey Merritt, strong of arm but weak of principle, was first to realize that something had happened. Elisha's speed checked with such suddenness that the rider narrowly escaped pitching out of the saddle.... Had the horse stumbled ... or been frightened?... What in the world was it?... Merritt recovered his balance and quite instinctively drove the spurs home; the only response was a grunt from Elisha. The long racing stride shortened to a choppy one. The horse was not tired, nor was he quitting in the general acceptance of the term; he was merely stopping to a walk with all possible speed. Merritt was seized with panic. He drew his whip and began slashing savagely. Elisha answered this by waving his tail high in the air, a protest and a flag of truce—but run he would not. His pace grew slower and slower and at the paddock gate he was on even terms with the drooping Elijah. "What ails that horse?" demanded the presiding judge. "He won't run a lick! Acts as if he's taken a sulky streak all at once!"
"Yes," said the associate. "The Bible horses are having a contest to see which one of 'em can quit the fastest.... Queer-looking race, judge. And they bet on Elisha this time, too."
"I'm glad of it!" exploding the other. "It serves 'em right. I like to see a frame-up go wrong once in a while!"
Side by side Elijah and Elisha fell back toward the field, little Mose grinning from ear to ear, but industriously hand riding his mount; Jockey Merritt cursing wildly and plying rawhide and steel with all his strength. The other horses, coming on with a closing rush, enveloped the pair, passing them and continued on toward the wire.
Only one remark of Martin O'Connor's is fit for quotation. It came when his vocabulary was bare of vituperation, abusive epithet, and profanity.
"You can slip me fifty, Engle. That darned trick horse of yours was last!"
An inquisitive soul is an itching thing and the gathering of information was the Bald-faced Kid's ruling passion. He called at Old Man Curry's stable that evening with a bit of news which he hoped to use as the key to a secret.
"Greetings!" said he at the tack-room door. "Thought you'd like to know that Engle has sold Elisha. Pete Lawrence bought him for three hundred dollars. Engle says that's two-ninety-five more than he'd bring at a soap works."
Old Man Curry had been reading by the light of the tack-room lantern; he pushed his glasses back on his forehead and smiled at his informant.
"Oh, Elisha!" said he. "Yes, if you look in the second stall to the right, you'll find him. He's been straying among the publicans and sinners, but he's home again now where he belongs. I asked Pete to go over and buy him for me."
"Good work!" said the Kid, seating himself. "There's quite a mass meeting over at Engle's barn."
"So?" said Old Man Curry.
"Yes indeed! They've got Jock Merritt up on the carpet and they haven't decided yet whether to hang him to a rafter or boil him in oil. Some of 'em think he pulled Elisha to-day. Merritt is giving 'em a powerful argument. Says he never rode a harder finish in his life, but that the horse took a sudden notion to quit and did it. Didn't seem to be tired or anything, but just stopped running. O'Connor gets the floor once in a while and rips and raves about that 'trick-horse thing.' He thinks you know something. Engle says you don't and never did, but that Elisha is a dog, same as he said at first. Wouldn't surprise me none if they got into a free-for-all fight over there because they're all losers and all sore. Jock Merritt is sorer'n anybody; he bet some of his own money and he thinks they ought to give it back to him.... Now, just between friends, what happened to that horse to-day? You told me he wouldn't win, but at the head of the stretch he looked like a 1 to 10 chance. I thought he'd walk in. Then all at once he quit running. He wasn't pulled, but something stopped him and stopped him quick. What was it?"
Old Man Curry stroked his beard and regarded the Bald-faced Kid with a tolerant expression.
"Well, now," said he at length, "seeing as how you know so much, I'm going to tell you something more 'bout that 'Lisha hoss. He used to have another name once."
"Silver Star," nodded the Kid. "I looked him up in the form charts."
Old Man Curry nodded.
"Eddie Caley—him they called the Cricket—owned the hoss in the first place. Raised him from a yearling. Now understand, I ain't excusing the Cricket for what he done, and I ain't blaming him neither. He was sick most of the time, and a sick man gets his notions sort of twisted like. Maybe he figured the race track owed him something for taking away his health. I don't know. He wasn't no hand to talk.
"Anyhow, he had this one hoss and always the one idea in his head—to slip him over at such a long price that he could clean up enough to quit on. Caley was doing his own training and riding. I kept an eye on the hoss, and it seemed to me Silver Star worked good enough to win, but every time he got in a race he'd quit at the head of the stretch. That struck me as sort of queer because he come from stretch-running stock. His daddy was a great one to win from behind. Well, six or seven times Silver Star quit that way, and from the head of the stretch home the Cricket would lay into him, whip and spur both. Wouldn't make the slightest difference to the hoss, but everybody could see that Caley was doing his best to make him run. Folks got kind of sorry for him, sick that way, only one hoss and him such a dog.
"Then one day Caley came to me and wanted the loan of some money. He said the price had got long enough to suit him, but that he didn't have anything to bet. Happened I had the bank roll handy and I let him have two hundred. I can see the little feller now, with the red patches on his cheeks and his eyes kind of shining with fever.
"'This is the biggest cinch that ever came off on a race track!' he says to me, coughing every few words. 'Don't let the price scare you. Don't let anything scare you. He'll be a good hoss to-day. Win something for yourself.'
"It's this way 'bout me: I've heard that kind of talk before. When I bet, it's got to be on my own hoss. I thought two hundred was plenty to lose. Silver Star was 25 and 30 to 1 all over the ring and a friend of Caley's unloaded the two hundred in little driblets so's nobody would get suspicious and cut the price too far. The Cricket got out of a sick bed to ride the race and Silver Star came from behind and won by seven lengths. Could have made it seventeen easy as not. I reckon everybody was glad to see Caley win—everybody but the bookmakers, but they hadn't any right to kick, seeing as he beat a red-hot favourite.
"Caley went to bed that night and didn't get up any more. I used to read to him when he couldn't sleep. Maybe that's how he come to give me the hoss, along with a little secret 'bout him."
Old Man Curry paused, tantalisingly, and rummaged in his pockets for his fine-cut. The Bald-faced Kid squirmed on his chair.
"It was a trick that nobody but a jockey would ever have thought of, son. Caley taught the colt to stop whenever a certain word was hollered in his ear. Dinged it into him, morning after morning, until Silver Star got so's he'd quit as soon as he heard it, like a buggy hoss stops when you say 'Whoa' to him. Best part of the trick, though, was that all the whipping and spurring in the world couldn't get him to running again. Caley taught him that for his own protection. It gave him an alibi with the judges. Couldn't they see he was riding the hoss as hard as he knew how? I don't say it was exackly honest, but——"
"Oho!" interrupted the Bald-faced Kid, "now I know why you had a front runner in that race! Between friends, old-timer, what was it Mose hollered at Elisha when he came alongside?"
"Well," said Old Man Curry, "that's the secret of it, my son, and it's this way 'bout a secret: you can't let too many folks in on it. I reckon it was a word spoken in due season, as Solomon says. Elisha, he won't hear it again unless he changes owners."
PLAYING EVEN FOR OBADIAH
Old Man Curry, owner of race horses, looked out of his tack-room door at a streaming sky and gave thanks for the rain. Other owners were cursing the steady downpour, for a wet track would sadly interfere with their plans, but Curry expected to start the chestnut colt Obadiah that afternoon, and Obadiah, as Jockey Moseby Jones was wont to remark, was a mud-running fool on any man's track. The Bald-faced Kid, who lived by doing the best he could and preferred to be called a hustler rather than a tout, spoke from the tack-room interior. He was a privileged character at the Curry barn.
"How does she look, old-timer? Going to clear up by noon?"
Old Man Curry shook his head. "Well, no," said he. "I reckon not. Looks to me like reg'lar Noah weather, Frank. If a man's got a mud hoss in his barn, now's the time to start him."
The Bald-faced Kid grunted absently. He was deep in a thick, leather-backed, looseleaf volume of past performances, technically known as a form book, generally mentioned as "the dope sheets"—the library of the turf follower, the last resort and final court of appeal. The Kid's lower lip had a studious droop and the pages rustled under his nervous fingers. An unlighted cigarette was behind his ear.
"What you looking for, son?"
"I'm trying to make Gaspargoo win his race to-day. He's in there with a feather on his back, and there'll be a price on him. He's been working good, too. He quits on a dry track, but in the mud he's liable to go farther. His old feet won't get so hot." Curry peered over the Kid's shoulder at the crowded columns of figures and footnotes, unintelligible to any but the initiated, and supposedly a complete record of the racing activities of every horse in training.
"Hm-m-m. Some folks say Solomon didn't write Ecclesiastes. Some say he did—after he got rid of his wives."
The Bald-faced Kid laughed.
"You and your Solomon! Well, get it off your chest! What does he say now?"
"I think it must have been Solomon, because here's something that sounds just like him: 'Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.' It would weary a mule's flesh to study them dope books, Frank. There's so many things enter into the running of hosses which ought to be printed in 'em and ain't. For instance, take that race right in front of you." The old man put his finger upon the page. "I remember it well. Here's Engle's mare, Sunflower, the favourite and comes fourth. Ab Mears wins it with the black hoss, Anthracite. Six to one. What does the book say 'bout Sunflower's race?"
The Kid read the explanatory footnote.
"'Sunflower, away badly, and messed about the first part of the journey; had no chance to catch the leaders, but closed strong under the whip.'"
"Uh-huh," said Old Man Curry. "Good as far as it goes, but that's all. Might as well tell a lie as part of the truth. Why not come right out with it and say that Engle was betting on Anthracite that day and the boy on Sunflower rode the mare to orders? That's what happened. Engle and Mears and O'Connor and Weaver and some of the rest of 'em run these races the night before over in O'Connor's barn. They get together and then decide on a caucus nominee. Why not put that in the book?"
"Speaking of Mears," said the Bald-faced Kid, "he thinks he'll win to-day with Whitethorn."
"Well," said the old man, "I'll tell you, Frank; it's this way 'bout Whitethorn; he'll win if he can beat Obadiah. The colt's ready and this weather suits him down to the ground. He surely does love to run in the slop. Only bad thing 'bout it, Engle and Weaver are both in that race, and since I trimmed that gang of pirates with Elisha they've had it in for me. Their jockeys act like somebody's told 'em there's an open season on my hosses. They bump that little nigger of mine every chance they get. Pretty near put him into the fence twice last week."
"Why don't you holler to the judges?"
"They haven't done any real damage, son. And here's another angle: these judges won't give a nigger any the best of it on a claim of foul agin a white boy. My Mose is the only darky rider here, and the other boys want to drive him out. Between Engle and his gang after me, and the jockeys after Mose, we got our hands full."
"I'll bet. Going to gamble any on Obadiah to-day?"
"If I like the price. None of the bookmakers here will ever die of enlargement of the heart. If Obadiah is shorter than three to one, he'll run for the purse alone. The hoss that beats him on a sloppy track will know that he's been going some."
It happened just beyond the half-mile pole, in a sudden flurry of wind and rain. The spectators, huddling under the grand-stand roof, saw the horses dimly as through a heavy mist. The colours were indistinguishable at the distance, drenched and sodden.
"Hello!" said the presiding judge, who had been wiping his field glasses. "One of 'em went down! What happened?"
"Don't know," replied the associate judge. "I was watching that thing in front—Whitethorn.... Yes, and that horse is hurt, Major.... The boy is all right, though. He's on his feet."
"It's Old Man Curry's horse," said the other. "Obadiah—and I sort of figured him the contender in this race, too.... The boy has got him.... Looks like a broken leg to me.... Too bad.... Better send an officer over there."
Before the judges knew that anything had happened a shabby, bearded old man in a rusty black frock coat dodged across the track from the paddock gate and splashed hurriedly through the infield. Old Man Curry never used binoculars; he had the eyes of an eagle.
"Been looking for it to happen every day!" he muttered. "And a right likely colt, too. The skunks! The miserable little skunks!"
Whitethorn, the winner of the race, was back in the ring and unsaddled before the old man reached the half-mile pole. Jockey Moseby Jones, plastered with mud from his bullet head to his boots, shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt, clung to Obadiah's bridle.
"Now, honey, you jus' stan' still!" he was saying. "Jus' stan' still an' we git yo' laig fixed up in no time; no time a-a-a-tall."
The colt stood with drooping head, drumming on the ground with the crippled foreleg; from time to time the unfortunate animal shivered as with a violent chill. Old Man Curry knelt in the mud, but rose almost immediately; one glance at the broken leg was enough. He looked at the little negro.
"How did it happen, Mose?"
"Jockey Murphy done it, boss. He was on 'at thing of Weaver's."
"Sutny he done it a-purpose. He cut in on us an' knocked us agin the rail. Come from 'way outside to do it."
Old Man Curry began to take the saddle off the colt. A tall man in a rubber coat, gum boots, and a uniform cap arrived on the scene, panting after his run from the grand stand. He looked at Obadiah's leg, sucked in his breath with a whistling sound more expressive than words, and faced Old Man Curry.
"Want the 'vet' to see him?" asked the newcomer.
"No use in him suffering that long," said the old man dully. "He's ruined. Might as well get it over with."
Jockey Moseby Jones wailed aloud.
"Oh, don' let 'em shoot Obadiah, boss!" he pleaded. "I'll take keer o' him; I'll set up nights 'ith him. Can't you splint it? Ain't there nothin' we kin do fo' him?"
"Only one thing, Mose," said Old Man Curry. "It's a kindness, I reckon." He passed the bridle to the uniformed stranger. "Don't be too long about it," said he.
The colt, gentle and obedient to the last, hobbled off the track toward a sheltering grove of trees near the upper turn. Custom decrees that the closing scene of a turf tragedy shall not be enacted within sight of the grand stand. Two very young stableboys followed at a distance.
"Run away, kids," said the tall man, fumbling at his hip pocket. "You don't want to see this."
Old Man Curry strode along the track, his shoulders squared, his face stern and his eyes blazing with the cold rage which sometimes overtakes a patient man. Little Mose trailed at his heels, whimpering and casting scared glances behind. After a time they heard the muffled report of a pistol.
"He's out of his misery, sonny," said the old man. "It's the best way—the best way—and now I want you to tell them judges just how it happened."
But Jockey Murphy had already told his story, ably seconded by his friends, Grogan and Merritt. These boys had been interviewed by racing judges before and, consequently, were not embarrassed.
"Judges—gentlemen," said Murphy, cap in hand—a vest-pocket edition of a horseman, freckled, blue-eyed, and bow-legged—"this was how it happened: That little nigger nearly spilled the whole bunch of us, tryin' to cut acrost to the rail goin' into the turn. We yelled at him, and he kind of lost his head—tried to yank his hoss around and down he went. Awful slippery over there, judges. I had to pull up with Fieldmouse, and couldn't get her to going again. She's a mean, skulking mare, and won't run a lick after she's been interfered with.... Who else saw it? Why, Merritt was right there somewheres, and so was Grogan. They're all that I'm sure of. You might ask 'em whether the nigger cut acrost or not. He's an awful reckless little kid, and he'll kill somebody yet if he ain't more careful."
Grogan and Merritt, called in support of this statement, perjured themselves like jockeys, and there was no conflicting note in the testimony. Mose, coming late, told his story, but the judges were swayed by the preponderance of evidence. It was three against one, and that one a very poor witness, for Mose was overawed by his surroundings and contradicted himself several times out of pure fright. In the end he was allowed to go with a solemn warning to be more careful in the future.
When this word was brought to Old Man Curry he lumbered heavily up the steps and into the judges' stand, where he refused a chair and delivered himself standing, the water dripping in tiny puddles from the skirt of his long black coat.
"Gentlemen," said he, "you're barking up the wrong tree. I've been expecting something like this ever since the meeting opened. My little boy can't ride a race 'thout interference from these rascals that take their orders from Engle and his bunch. They've tried a dozen times to put him over the fence, and now they've killed a good hoss for me. I ain't going to stand it. I——"
"But the other boys all say——"
"Great King!" interrupted the old man wrathfully. "Of course they do! Told you the same identical story, didn't they? Ain't that proof they're lying? Did you ever see three honest people that could agree when they was trying to tell the truth 'bout an accident? Did you?"
Quite naturally the judges were inclined to regard this as a reflection upon their official conduct. Old Man Curry was reprimanded for his temerity, and descended from the stand, his beard fairly bristling with righteous indignation. Little Mose followed him down the track toward the paddock; he had to trot to keep up with the old man's stride.
"Might have knowed they'd team up agin us," said the negro. "Them Irish jockeys had a story all cooked to tell."
Old Man Curry did not open his mouth until he reached his tack-room, and then it was only to stuff one cheek with fine-cut tobacco—his solace in times of stress. After reflection he spoke, dropping his words slowly, one by one.
"Weaver and Murphy and Engle.... It says in Ecclesiastes that a threefold cord is not easily broken, but I reckon it might be done, one cord at a time.... Well, Mose, they've made us take the medicine!"
"Sutny did!" chirped the little negro. "But they'll never git us to lick the spoon!"
The Bald-faced Kid often boasted that everybody's business was his business—a large contract on any race track of the Jungle Circuit. His stop watch told him what the horses were doing, and stableboys, bartenders, and waiters told him what their owners were doing, the latter vastly more important to the Kid. At all times he used his eyes, which were sharp as gimlets. Thus it happened that he was able to give Old Man Curry a bit of interesting information.
"Considering what these birds, Weaver and Murphy, did to you last week," said the Kid, "I don't suppose you'd fight a bulldog for 'em, or anything like that?"
"Eh? What bulldog?" Old Man Curry could never keep abreast of the vernacular.
"Getting down to cases," said the Kid, "you're laying for Weaver and Murphy, ain't you?"
"I ain't said so in that many words," was the cautious response.
"You ain't going to let 'em kill a good colt for you and get away with it, are you? Weaver was only in that race to take care of Obadiah. Eagle's gang was down hook, line, and sinker on Whitethorn, and they cleaned up. Obadiah was the one they was leery of, so Weaver put Fieldmouse in the race and told Murphy to take care of you. It's simple as A, B, C. Wouldn't you get back at 'em if you had a chance?"
"I ain't signed any peace documents as I know of," said the old man, a smouldering light in his eye.
"Now you're talking!" said the Kid. "If you want to catch Weaver and Murphy dead to rights, I can tell how to go about it."
"So do, Frank," said Old Man Curry. "So do. My ear is open to your cry."
"In the first place," said the Kid, lighting a cigarette, "I don't suppose you know that Weaver has been stealing weight off his horses ever since this meeting opened."
"With Parker, the clerk of the scales?" ejaculated the old man. "I've heard that couldn't be done."
The Bald-faced Kid chuckled.
"A smart owner can do anything," said he, "and Weaver's smart. At these other tracks, stealing weight off a horse is the king of indoor sports, and they mostly work it through a stand-in with the clerk of the scales; but you're right about this fellow Parker. He's on the level, and they can't get at him. A jock has got to weigh in and weigh out on the dot when Parker is on the job. He won't let 'em get by with the difference of an ounce."
"Then how——" began Old Man Curry.
"There you go, busting through the barrier! Weaver is pulling the wool over Parker's eyes. Now here's what I saw yesterday: Weaver had Exmoor in the third race, supposed to be carrying one hundred and ten pounds. Jock Murphy ain't much bigger'n a rabbit—tack and all, he won't weigh ninety-five. That would make, say, fifteen pounds of lead in the weight pad. Murphy got on the scales and was checked out of the jock's room at one hundred and ten, all square enough, but when Weaver saddled Exmoor he left the weight pad off him entirely—slipped it to that big nigger swipe of his—Chicken Liver Pete, they call him."
"I know him," said Old Man Curry.
"Everybody knows him," said the Kid. "Well, Chicken Liver put the weight pad under the blanket that he was carrying to throw over the horse after the race. Exmoor won yesterday, but he didn't carry an ounce of lead."
"But how did Murphy make the weight after he finished?" demanded the old man.
"Easiest thing in the world!" said the Kid. "While Murphy was unsaddling the horse, Chicken Liver was right at his elbow, and both of 'em had their backs to the judges. It looked natural enough for the nigger to be there—waiting to blanket the horse the minute the saddle came off of him. All Murphy had to do was grab under the blanket with one hand while he jerked the saddle off the horse with the other—and there he was, ready to weigh one hundred and ten. I'll bet those two fellows have rehearsed that switch a thousand times. They pulled it off so slick that if I hadn't been watching for it I could have been looking right at 'em and never noticed it. And the judges didn't have the chance that I did, because they couldn't see anything but their backs. Murphy pranced in, hopped on the scales, got the O. K., and that was all there was to it. Pretty little scheme, ain't it? And so darned simple!"
Old Man Curry combed his beard with both hands—with him a sign of deep thought.
"Frank," said he at length, "where does this Chicken Liver nigger go while the race is being run?"
"Across the track to the infield. That was where he went yesterday. I was watching him."
"The infield.... Hm-m-m.... Thank you, Frank."
"You could tip it off to the judges," suggested the Kid, "and they'd have Chicken Liver searched. Like as not they'd rule Weaver off for life and set Murphy down——"
"There's a better way than searching that nigger," said Old Man Curry.
"You'll have to show me!"
"Son," said the aged owner, "according to Solomon—and, oh, what a racing judge he would have made!—'he that hath knowledge spareth his words.' I'm sparing mine for the present, but that won't keep me from doing a heap of thinking.... Engle, Weaver, and Murphy.... Maybe I can bust two of these cords at once—and fray the other one a little."
Four men sat under the lantern in Martin O'Connor's tack-room on a Wednesday night. They spoke in low tones, for they were engaged in running the fourth race on Thursday's programme.
"I've let it be known in a few places where it'll do the most good that the mare can't pack a hundred and fifteen pounds and win at a mile." This was Weaver speaking, a small, wiry man with a drooping moustache. "You know how talk gets around on a race track—tell the right man and you might as well rent the front page of the morning paper. As a matter of fact, Fieldmouse can't pack that weight and win."
"That's the way the form students will dope it out," said Al Engle, otherwise the Sharpshooter, the smiling, youthful, gold-toothed blond who directed the campaigns and dictated the policy of the turf pirates. "That much weight will stop most of 'em, but let her in there under ninety pounds and Fieldmouse is a cinch. That little sleight-of-hand stunt between Murphy and your nigger is working fine. They not only put it over on the judges, but none of the other owners are wise. I'd try it myself some day if I wasn't afraid somebody would fumble and give the snap away."
"Huh!" growled the saturnine O'Connor. "Needn't worry about tipping anything off to them judges. They're both blind. Here's what bothers me: Old Man Curry is in that same race with Isaiah."
"Well, what of that?" said Engle. "That old fool is all same as a nightmare to you, ain't he?"
"Call him a fool if you want to," was the stubborn rejoinder, "but he made an awful sucker out of you with that trick horse of his. An awful sucker. If Old Man Curry is a fool, there's a lot of wise people locked up in the bug houses. That's all I've got to say!"
"He's had your goat ever since the meeting opened," grinned the Sharpshooter.
"That's all right," said O'Connor. "That's a whole lot better than my buying a goat from him—for a thousand dollars." This by way of reminding the Sharpshooter of something which he preferred to forget. Engle reddened.
"Aw, what's the good of chewing the fat?" interrupted the fourth man briskly. This was Ab Mears, of whom it was said that he trained his horses to look into the betting ring on their way to the post and to run in accordance with the figures they saw upon the bookmakers' slates. "Let's not have any arguments, boys. All little pals together, eh?... Now, getting down to business, as the fellow said when he was digging the well, Isaiah is a pretty shifty old selling plater when he's at himself; but you know and I know that the best day he ever saw he couldn't beat Fieldmouse at a mile with a feather on her back. She'll walk home alone. The most Isaiah can do is to come second——"
"He'll be lucky if he does that well," interrupted Engle. "The mare will be in front of him all the way.... Same old stuff; wait for the closing betting. Weaver, you keep on hollering your head off about the weight; it'll scare the outsiders and they won't play her. Then, at the last minute, cut loose and load up the books with all they'll take."
"Just the same," muttered O'Connor, "I'd feel a lot more comfortable if Curry wasn't in the race. That old boy is poison, that's what he is. The last couple of times——"
"Oh, shut up!" rasped Engle. "Elisha was the horse he trimmed us with—Elisha! Get that through your head. This is Isaiah. There's as much difference in horses as there is in prophets. What you need is one of those portable Japanese foot warmers."
The paddock is the place to go for information, particularly after the saddling bell rings. The owners are usually on exhibition at that time. Nearly every owner will answer a civil question about his horse; once in a great while one of them may answer truthfully. In this particular race we are concerned with but two owners, one of whom told the truth.
Weaver, rat-eyed and furtive, answered all questions freely—almost too freely.
"Ye-es, she's a right nice little mare, but they've weighted her out of it to-day. She can't pack a hundred and fifteen and win.... That much lead will stop a stake horse. Better stay off her to-day. Some other time."
Old Man Curry, grave and polite, also answered questions.
"Isaiah? Oh, yes. Well, now, sir, I'll tell you 'bout this hoss of mine. I figure he's got a stavin' good chance to come second—a stavin' good chance.... No, he won't be first."
Just before the bugle blew, Mose received his riding orders.
"If that mare of Weaver's gets away in front, don't you start chasing her. No use in running Isaiah's head off trying to ketch her. I want you to finish second, understand? Isaiah can beat all these other hosses. Don't pay no 'tention to the mare. Let her go."
Little Mose nodded.
"'At Fieldmouse is sutny a goin' fool when 'ey bet stable money on huh," said he. "Let 'at ole mare go, eh?"
"Exackly," said the old man, "but be sure you beat the rest of 'em."
"Fieldmouse an' Murphy," said Mose. "Huh-uh! 'At's a bad combination fo' us, boss, a ba-ad combination. 'Membeh Obadiah?"
The Bald-faced Kid strolled into Isaiah's stall.
"Chicken Liver's got it," he whispered. "I saw Weaver pass it to him."
"That's what I've been waiting for, Frank," said Old Man Curry. "Here, Shanghai! You lead him out on the track. I've got business with the children of Israel."
The Fieldmouse money was beginning to pour into the ring, and the block men were busy with their erasers. Each time the mare's price went down, Isaiah's price went up a little. Old Man Curry drew out a tattered roll of currency and went from booth to booth, betting on his horse at four to one.
"Think you've got a chance to-day, old man?" It was the Sharpshooter, smiling like a cherub.
"Well, now," said Curry, "I'll tell you 'bout me; I'm always trying, so I've always got a chance. Looks like the weight ought to stop the mare."
"That's so," said Engle. "Betting much?"
"Quite considerable for me, yes. Isaiah ain't a trick hoss, but he——"
"Oh, you go to the devil!" said Engle.
But Old Man Curry crossed the track instead. His first care was to locate the negro known as Chicken Liver; this done, he watched the start of the race. Nine horses were lined up at the barrier, and at least six of the jockeys were manoeuvring for a flying start. The official starter, a thick-set man with a long twisted nose, bellowed loudly from time to time.
"No! No! You can't break that way!... You, Murphy! I'll fine you in a minute!... Get back there, Grogan! What did I tell you, Murphy?... Bring that horse up slow! Bring him up! No! No! You can't break that way!"
Isaiah stood perfectly still in the middle of the track; on either side of him the nervous animals charged at the barrier or whirled away from it in sudden, wild dashes. The starter's voice grew husky and his temper hot, but at last the horses were all headed in the right direction, if only for the fraction of a second. Jockey Murphy, scenting a start, had Fieldmouse in motion even as the elastic webbing shot into the air; she was in her racing stride as the starter's voice blared out:
"You're off! Go on! Go on!"
The mare, always a quick breaker, rushed into the lead, Murphy taking her on an easy slant to the inner rail. Isaiah, swinging a bit wide on the first turn, settled down to work, and at the half-mile pole was leading the pursuit, taking the dust which Fieldmouse kicked up five lengths in front.
Chicken Liver, watching Murphy skim the rail into the home stretch, shuffled his feet in an ecstasy of exultation.
"Come home, baby!" he shouted. "Come 'long home! You de bes' li'l ole hawss—uh!"
Something small and hard jammed violently into the pit of Chicken Liver's stomach, and his song of victory ended in an amazed grunt. Old Man Curry was glaring at him and pressing the muzzle of a forty-five-calibre revolver against the exact spot where the third button of Chicken Liver's vest would have been had he owned such a garment.
"Drop that weight pad, nigger, or I'll blow you inside out! Drop it!"
Chicken Liver leaped backward with a howl of terror. The next instant he was well on his way to the Weaver barn, supplication floating over his shoulder.
"Don't shoot, misteh! Fo' de Lawd's sake, don't shoot!"
Old Man Curry picked up the weight pad and started for the gate. He arrived in time to see the smile on Murphy's face as he swung under the wire, three lengths in front of Isaiah, the other horses trailing far in the rear. Murphy was still smiling broadly when he brought Fieldmouse back into the chalked circle, a privileged space reserved for winners.
"Judges!" piped the jockey shrilly, touching the visor of his cap with his whip. Receiving the customary nod, Murphy slid to the ground and attacked the cinch. It was then that Chicken Liver should have stepped forward with his blanket—then that the deft transfer should have taken place, but Chicken Liver, where was he? Murphy's anxious eyes travelled around the wide circle of owners and hostlers, and his smile faded into a nervous grin.
Now, after each race a few thousand impatient people must wait for the official announcement—the one, two, three, without which no tickets can be cashed—and the official announcement must wait upon the weighing of the riders. For this reason no time is wasted in the ceremony.
"Hurry up, son," said the presiding judge. "We're waiting on you."
Murphy fumbled with the strap, playing desperately for time. As he tugged, his eyes were searching for the missing negro. He caught one glimpse of Weaver's face, yellow where it was not white; he, too, was raking the horizon for Chicken Liver.
"What's the matter with you, Murphy?" demanded the judge. "Do you want help with that tack?"
"No, sir," faltered the jockey. "Th-this thing sticks somehow. I'll git it in a minute. I——"
Old Man Curry marched through the ring and up the steps to the platform of the judges' stand, and when Weaver saw what he carried in his hand he became a very sick man indeed—and looked it. Al Engle backed away into the crowd and Martin O'Connor followed him, mumbling incoherently.
"Maybe this is what Murphy is waiting for, judges," said Old Man Curry with marked cheerfulness. "Maybe he don't want to git on the scales without it."
"Eh?" said the presiding judge. "What is that?"
"Looks like a weight pad to me," said Old Man Curry, "with quite a mess of lead in it. Yes, it is a weight pad."
"Where did you get it?"
"Well," said the old man, "I'll tell you 'bout that: Weaver's nigger had it smuggled under a blanket, but he dropped it and I picked it up. Maybe Weaver thought the nigger was a better weight packer than the mare. I don't know. Maybe——"
"Young man," commanded the presiding judge, "that'll do you. Take your tackle and get on the scales. Lively now!"
Murphy cast one despairing glance about him and slouched to his undoing. The judge, weight pad in hand, followed him into the weighing room underneath the stand. He was back again almost instantly, and his voice had an angry ring.
"Change those numbers!" said he. "The mare is disqualified. Isaiah, first; Rainbow, second; put the fourth horse third. Mr. Weaver, come up here, sir! And where's that nigger? I want him too. Murphy, I'll see you later.... Don't go away, Mr. Curry. I need you."
"That's what I call getting hunk with a vengeance, old-timer." Thus the Bald-faced Kid, at the door of Old Man Curry's tack-room. "You cleaned up right, didn't you? Weaver's ruled off for life, and his horses with him—he can't even sell 'em to another stable. Murphy's lost his license. Chicken Liver's out of a job. Engle and his bunch are in the clear, but they lost a lot of money on the mare. Regular old blunderbuss, ain't you? Didn't miss anybody."
"Son," said Old Man Curry, removing his spectacles, "Solomon had it right. He says: 'Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein.' Weaver dug one big enough to hold his entire stable. And that reminds me: I bet fifty dollars for you to-day, and here's the two hundred. Run it up if you can, but remember what Solomon says about that: 'He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.'"
"I'll take a chance," said the Bald-faced Kid, reaching for the money.
BY A HAIR
"Son," said Old Man Curry, "what's on your mind besides your hat? You ain't said a word for as much as two minutes, and any time you keep still that long there must be something wrong."
The Bald-faced Kid's glance rested for an instant upon the kindly features of the patriarch of the Jungle Circuit, then flickered away down the line of stables where other horsemen and race-track followers were sunning themselves and waiting the summons to the noon meal.
Old Man Curry, his eyes half closed, a straw in the corner of his mouth, and the brim of his slouch hat resting upon the bridge of his nose, seemed not to be conscious of this brief but piercing scrutiny. As usual with him, there was about this venerable person a beguiling air of innocence and confidence in his fellow man, a simple attitude of trustfulness not entirely borne out by his method of handling a racing stable. Certain dishonest horsemen and bookmakers were beginning to suspect that Old Man Curry was smarter than he looked. The Bald-faced Kid had never entertained any doubts upon this subject. He remained silent, the thin edge of a grin playing about his lips.
"I hope you ain't been trying to show any tinhorn gamblers the error of their ways by ruining 'em financially," said the old man, one drowsy eye upon the Kid's face. "That's one of the things what just naturally can't be done. Steady growth is the thing to fat a bank roll, Frank. I'm about to tell you how you can multiply yours considerable. Last time you was here you had two hundred dollars, spoiled Egyptian money——"
"Oh, I guess it wasn't so darn badly spoiled at that!" interrupted the Kid. "I didn't have any trouble getting rid of it." He grinned sheepishly. "Your friend Solomon called the turn on the get-rich-quick stuff. 'He that maketh haste'—what's the rest of it, old-timer?"
"'He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent,'" quoted Old Man Curry, rolling out the syllables in sonorous procession. "But I reckon not being rich is worrying you more than not being innocent. Who took the roll away from you?"
"Squeaking Henry got a piece of it," admitted the Kid. "Did you ever play twenty-one—Black Jack, old-timer?"
Old Man Curry shook his head.
"I never monkeyed much with cards," said he, "but I've seen the game played some—when I was younger."
"Well," said the Kid mournfully, "Squeaking Henry and a couple of his friends rung in some marked cards—on my deal. Of course those burglars could take one flash at the top of the deck and know just when to draw and when not to. I sat up there like a flathead and let 'em clean me. What tipped it off was that when I was down to my last smack, with a face card in sight and a face card in the hole, Henry drew to twenty and caught an ace. The mangy little crook! Oh, well, easy come, easy go. I'd have lost it some other way, I guess. But, say, what was this proposition of yours about fattening the bank roll? I've got seven dollars between me and the wolf, and he's so close that I can smell his breath."
"Seeing that you ain't got any more judgment than that," was Old Man Curry's comment, "I don't know as I ought to tell you."
"Oh, all right," said the Kid, "if that's the way you feel about it—but maybe I've got some information I could trade you for it."
"I never swapped hosses blind," said Old Man Curry.
"I won't ask you to," said the Bald-faced Kid. "It's no news that Engle's bunch is out for your scalp, is it?"
"No-o," said the old man. "I kind of suspicioned as much."
"They're after you strong, old-timer. First you walloped 'em with Elisha, then you double-crossed 'em with Elijah, and then you got Weaver and Murphy ruled off. At first Engle thought you was only ignorant but shot full of blind luck. Lately he ain't been so sure about the ignorance. Engle hates to give anybody else credit for being wise to the angles around this track."
"Solomon said something about him," remarked Old Man Curry gravely.
"Go ahead; pull it!" said the Kid.
"'Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a fool than of him.' That's what Solomon thought about the Engle family, son."
"Well, if I was you I wouldn't lay any fancy odds that Engle is a fool," warned the Kid. "There's one baby that you've got to figure on every minute. You've got a horse in your barn that Engle is watching like a hawk."
"Elisha. When does he start the next time?"
"In the Handicap."
"The Handicap, eh? You must think pretty well of him. Some good horses in that race. Well, there won't be a price on him worth taking; you can bet on that."
Old Man Curry opened his eyes wide for the first time.
"No price on him! Nonsense! He's a selling plater going up agin so-called stake horses! No price! Huh!"
"Even so, nevertheless, notwithstanding, and but," said the Kid with exasperating calmness, "you won't get a price on him. I can quote some myself. The voice of wisdom is speaking to you."
"But he ain't never done anything that would justify starting him with stake hosses," argued Old Man Curry, feeling in his pockets for his fine-cut.
"Is there any law to prevent 'em figuring that he might?"
"But why is Engle worrying about the price on my hosses?" demanded Curry.
"Maybe to get even for what you've done to him. Maybe because he's got some sort of an agreement with Abe Goldmark. You know Abe?"
"By sight, son, by sight. And that's the only way I want to know him."
"You and me both," said the Kid quickly. "I don't like that fellow's face or the way he wears it, but you can't afford to overlook him any more than you can overlook a rattlesnake. Goldmark is another one of the wise boys. He runs one book, but he's under cover with an interest in five or six more. He comes pretty near being a combination in restraint of trade, Goldmark does. The Handicap is going to be the big betting race of the meeting. Goldmark has been tipped to keep his eye out for Elisha. On Elisha's record he ought to be 15 or 20 to 1."
"Longer than that!" said Old Man Curry.
"I'm figuring these syndicate books," said the Kid. "He'll open around 3 to 1 and stay there whether there's a dollar bet on him or not. False odds? Certainly, but they're taking no chances on you. They figure you won't be trying at that price. And another thing: This same Squeaking Henry, this marked-card gambler, has gone to work for Goldmark. Three dollars a day for what he can find out. Is this information worth anything to you?"
"It might be, son," said Old Man Curry. "It might be. I'll let you know later on."
"On the level," said the Kid, "you don't figure that Elisha has got a chance to win that race—not with Regulator and Black Bill and Miss Amber in it? They're no Salvators, I admit, still they're the best we ever see in this part of the country. Black Bill is a demon over a distance, old-timer. He won that two-mile race last winter at Santa Anita. Elisha has never gone more than a mile and an eighth, and this is a mile and a half. Honest, now, you don't think he can beat horses like Black Bill and Regulator, do you?"
"Son," said Old Man Curry, "I never think anything about a race until the night before. That's time enough."
"But suppose they make him a short price? You wouldn't cut him loose and let him make a showing that would spoil him as a betting proposition?"
"Well, maybe he won't be a short price," said the old man. "You can't tell a thing about it. It's this way with bookmakers: Once in a while they change their minds, and that's where an honest hossman gets a crack at 'em. Yes, they get to fooling with their little pieces of chalk. I don't reckon Elisha will be less'n 20 to 1. There goes the gong at the boarding house. Might as well eat with me and nurse that seven dollars all you can."
The Bald-faced Kid rose with alacrity and bowed low, his hand upon his heart.
"You are the ideal host," said he, "and I am the ideal hostee! I could eat a horse and chase the driver. Lead the way, old-timer!"
The money which Squeaking Henry won by reason of the marked cards did him very little good, remaining in his possession barely long enough to cause his vest pocket to sag a trifle. He lost it in a friendly game with the friends who were clever enough to plan the raid on the Bald-faced Kid's bank roll, using Henry as a tool, much as the coastwise Chinaman uses a cormorant in his fishing operations. Stripped of his opulence, Squeaking Henry found himself flat on the market again.
Henry was a tout, hence an easy and extemporaneous liar, but, alas, a clumsy one. He lacked the Bald-faced Kid's finesse; lacked also his tireless energy, his insatiable curiosity, and the thin vein of pure metal which lay underneath the base. There was nothing about Squeaking Henry which was not for sale cheap; body and soul, he was on life's bargain counter among the remnants, and Abe Goldmark, examining the lot, found a price tag labelled three dollars a day.
"Uh-huh," said Henry. "I get you, Mr. Goldmark. You want me to stick around Old Man Curry's barn and pump him."
"Never mind the pumping," said Goldmark. "The less you talk and the fewer questions you ask the better. Curry is no fool, understand. He might be just as smart as you are. Judging by the number of good things he's put over at this meeting, he's smarter. I want to know who calls on him, who his stable connections are, who he——"
"Aw, he ain't got no stable connections!" said Squeaking Henry in great disgust. "He plays the game alone, and when he wants to bet he walks into the ring and goes to it. Never had a betting commissioner in his life, and if you want to know when the stable money is down, all you've got to do is watch Curry. Cinch!"
"Oh, a cinch is it?" sneered Goldmark. "Then I'm making a big mistake to hire you to find out things. You know everything already, eh?"
"Well, I guess not everything," mumbled the abashed Henry.
"That's my guess, too!" snapped Goldmark. "I'm paying you to watch that Curry stable; get me? And I want you to watch it! I want to know everything that happens around there from now on, understand? Particularly, I want a line on this Elisha horse. Know him when you see him?"
"S-s-sure!" said Squeaking Henry. "Sure I do! Big, leggy bay with a white spot on his forehead about the size of a nickel. Do I know him? Well!"
"I want to know when Curry works him—how far and how fast. I want to know what the old man thinks of his chances in the Handicap. You can get me at the hotel every night after dinner. Better use the telephone. In case you slip up or miss me, send word by Al Engle."
"All right," said Henry.
"And say," Goldmark actually grinned, "I hear this Curry is a soft-hearted old fellow. Why couldn't you tell him a hard-luck story and get to sleep in his tack-room nights? Then you'd be right on the ground. Try a hard-luck story on him. The one you sprang on me wasn't so bad."
"H-m-m-m," mused Henry. "I might, and that's a fact. He ain't a bad guy, Old Man Curry ain't. He stakes the hustlers every once in a while."
"Well," said Goldmark insinuatingly, "if he should be such a sucker as to stake you, don't forget you was on my pay roll first; that's all I ask."
"Aw, whadda you take me for?" growled Squeaking Henry, virtuously indignant at the barest hint of duplicity. "I ain't that kind of a guy."
Since the tout lives by his wits and his tongue, he is never without a hard-luck story—a dependable one, tried, but seldom, if ever, true. He circles human nature, searching for the weak point and, having found it, delivers the attack. Squeaking Henry knew the armour plate to be thinnest on man's sympathetic side, and the hard-luck story which he told Old Man Curry would have melted the heart of a golf club handicapper. The story was overworked and threadbare in spots, but it brought an immediate result.
"And that's how I'm fixed," whined Squeaking Henry in conclusion. "I think I can rustle the eats all right enough—one meal a day anyway—and if I just had a place to sleep——" He paused and regarded Old Man Curry expectantly.
"Come in, son," said the patriarch. A wiser man than Squeaking Henry might have found Curry's manner almost too friendly. "Come in. There's a spare cot here and you're welcome to it. Mose, my little nigger, sleeps here too, but I reckon you won't mind him. He's clean."
Strange to say, it was Jockey Moseby Jones who minded. He minded very much, in plain English, waylaying Old Man Curry as he made the rounds of the stalls that night, lantern in hand.
"This yer Squawkin' Henry, boss, he's a no-good hound. He's no good a-a-atall. They ketched him at Butte last year ringin' in hawss dice on 'e crap game 'mong friends an' 'ey jus' nachelly sunk his floatin' ribs an' kicked him out on his haid. Thass all they done to him, Mist' Curry. Betteh watch him clost, else he'll steal 'em gol' fillin's outen yo' teeth!"
"You know him, do you, Mose?" asked Old Man Curry.
"Do I knows him!" ejaculated the little negro. "I knows him well 'nough to wish yo' hadn't 'vited him to do his floppin' in yo' tack-room!"
"Ah-hah!" said Old Man Curry reflectively. "Mose, I reckon you never heard what Job said?"
Jockey Moseby Jones heaved a deep sigh.
"Heah it comes again!" he murmured. "No, boss; he said such a many things I kain't seem to keep track of 'em all. Whut he say now?"
"Something about the wise being taken in their own craftiness; I've forgotten the exact words."
"Umph! Sho'lly yo' don't call Squawkin' Henry wise?"
"No-o, but he may have wise friends. Somehow I've sort of been expecting this visitor, Mose. You heard him tell about how bad off his mother is. It seems a shame not to accommodate him, when all he wants is a place to sleep—and some information on the side."
"Well, I can't exactly swear to it, Mose, but I think the children of Israel have sent this Henry person among us to spy out the land. That's a trick they learned a long time ago, after they got out of Egypt. Joshua taught it to 'em. Ever since then they don't take any more chances than they can help. They always want to know what the other fellow is doing—and it's a pretty good system at that. Being as things are the way they are, a spy in camp, etcetry, mebbe what hoss talk is done had better be done by me. You sabe, Mose?"
"Humph!" sniffed the little jockey. "I got you long ago, boss, lo-ong ago!"
Al Engle, sometimes known as the Sharpshooter, horse owner and recognised head of a small but busy band of turf pirates, was leaving his stable at seven-thirty on a Wednesday evening, intending to proceed by automobile to the brightly lighted district. Sleek, blond, youthful in appearance, without betraying wrinkle or line, Engle's innocent exterior had been his chief dependence in his touting days. He seemed, on the surface, to be everything which he was not.
As he stepped forth from the shadow of the stable awning a hand plucked at his sleeve.
"It's me—Henry," said a voice. "I've got a message for Goldmark—couldn't catch him on the phone."
"Shoot it!" said Engle.
"Tell him that Elisha has gone dead lame—can't hardly rest his foot on the ground."
"That'll do for Sweeney!" said the Sharpshooter. "Elisha worked fine this morning. I clocked him myself."
"But that was this morning," argued Squeaking Henry. "He must have bowed a tendon or something. His left foreleg is in awful shape."
"Are you sure it's Elisha?" demanded Engle.
"Come and see for yourself. You know the horse. Owned him for a few weeks, didn't you? Curry is working on his leg now. You can peek in at the door of the stall and see for yourself. He won't even know you're there."
Together they crossed the dark space under the trees, heading for a thin ribbon of light which streamed from beneath the awning of Curry's barn. Somewhere, close at hand, a piping voice was lifted in song: