THE MAN FROM the DESERT
The First of a Series of Racing Stories
W. A. FRASER
Author of “Bulldog Carney," etc.
N O T E : h i x i x t h e first of a new ser ies of stor ies by Mr. Fraser dealing with Allit is necessary to say about the se stories is that they are as good as the Bulldog Carney series of last, year-, also each story is better than the one that preceded it. The last of the series, “The Night Riders,” is, we think, just about the best racing story ever written.
PUD CONNOR and Big Jack Severn sat ata little table fronting Broadway in "Brown's Chop House." They had come from Belwood
Park, and were possessed of hunger and much racing talk.
When they had eaten their dinner they would go up to the old “Car Barns” and hammer out on their typewriters the racing results of that day. They were both on the Morning Wire.
Severn was a big, hearty, father boisterous individual, of variable temperament. Pud Connor was a little roundfaced Irishman, the possessor of two large solemn gray eyes. He had just one religion— the Morning Wire, and one hope on earth, a great scoop for his paper.
“What did you make of Charcoal to-day, Pud?” Severn boomed as though they stood in the centre of a ten-acre lot and voice cadence was of no moment.
The little man’s big eyes clouded with a passing perplexity: “Wish I had made ten per cent, of what the gangscooped over that killing,” he answered presently.
“The gang,” Severn growled. “A gang couldn’t work as smoothly as all that—somebody ’d leak; it’s some one man, Pud, and this is the third time round for a killing in the last two months. To-day it was Charcoal; at Jamaica it was Rangoon ; and at Empire it was Fox Willow.”
“I believe you’re right, Severn; there’s never a clue, never a boy that the stewards can put on the carpet and bring anything against. Pinkerton, suspicious and all as he naturally is, says it’s just coincidence—a horse rounding to form after being away off, and winning. It must be some tight-mouthed cuss with brains to burn that wouldn’t tell his own mother to have the price of a pair of silk stockings down on it.”
“And yet,” Severn boomed, “Rangoon was played all over the country, and to-day Charcoal was backed off the boards at the track.”
“I’d like to know what Charcoal’s right name is—”
“D’you think he’s a ringer, Pudthat it’s some other horse running as Charcoal?”
Connor drew a paper from his pocket and passed it to his companion. “There’s ‘Racing Form’, Jack; just look up Charcoal’s form in the fifth race.”
Severn ran his eye over the horse’s record, muttering: Some coming to life, eh, Pud? In ten starts never in the money; to-day he meets a better bunch of horses, wins going away, and they run the mile in 1.37 2-5.”
“There’s something else I want you to note, Jack; Charcoal is by Hastings, and in some of those races he was beaten in the mud; and now he comes and turns the trick on a fast track. A Hastings colt might run some bad races on a fast track and then win in the mud—I’ve seen them do it You take it from me, he’s a ringer; and that’s the hardest kind of a trick to straighten out.”
“Yes,” Severn contributed, “he won all on his ownit
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SEVERN felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, and, turning, saw a tall, sallow, leather-faced man trying in a solemn way to smile apologetically. Then the tall one said: “Excuse me for bein’ friendly, gentlemen, but I heard you talkin’ hawse, and God! I’m lonesome. I’m from the West, and I come to New York with a few slugs of gold to get happy where the bright lights is—but I aint. I’m lonesome! If I was out there on the desert with a hawse I’d just be to home with a couple of sage bushes —I wouldn’t feel this way.”
Severn in his big boisterous way twisted a chair about, saying: “Sit in, stranger; I’m from the South; when I first hit this town I died and they buried me; but I was born again, and I know how it feels. My name’s Severn and this is Mr. Connor.”
“My name’s Hawkins, gentlemen — Lage Hawkins. Several of the fellers out West knows me, and they know I love a hawse. I see the girls on Broadway, but the good ones seems kind of far off—I don’t know them; if they was hawses I could go up and rub their necks.”
Severn roared a Gargantuan laugh, and Pud’s big eyes blinked appreciatively. This man was a stray human, all right; he babbled as straightforwardly as a kid.
Hawkins looked dismally at the two steins of beer that sat on the table, scraped a big foot thoughtfully on the floor, and stammered: “Buyin’ wine is kind of a come-on
game in New York,
I guess, but I’d feel kind of good, kind of to home, if you’d let me stand up one of them goldilock bottles just to even up, gentle-
“Sure,” Severn re-
Aquartwasbrought, and the man from the desert quaffed it as though he were washing the alkali out of his throat.
“I couldn’t help hearin’ it, gents,”—he said, with a sneeze, as theeffervescent bubbles tickled his nostrils — “but you was talkin’ of a ringer.
That kind of got me back home again. Just plain hawse racin' I’ll allow is excitin’, just the same as a straight game of poker, but when it comes to watchin’ the dealer in hawse racin’, so to speak, to catch him slippin’ an ace from the bottom, that’s what I calls thrills.”
Pud’s gray eyes circled a little wider at this and Severn bellowed: “Haw-haw! you’ve come to the right town, sir, if Ja tangle tickles your
“There was a man out in our country,” the stranger said reminiscently, “who was Hellfire-Jack. I wonder if you ever heard of him —he was called ‘The Man From the Desert?’ Also, he was named Farmer Gray.
He wasn’t no farmer —he just looked it.
And Gray, I figger, was a hair-brand, some-
off, if the truth was known. I guess it was just because he always wore a gray hat, and grew gray whiskers, and gener’ly looked kind of gray, like a Fall day—there wasn’t no sunshine in him.”
DUD started, and a tingle of remembrance caused his * big eyes to deepen a shade in intensity.
“The Man from the Desert,” Hawkins resumed, “had got hawses and thf ringin’ game down fine. He’d been a chemist up among the mines, Coeur d’Alene way, always workin’ out some cyanide process for ore; he made a bar’l of money at it, and his processes was mostly ringers, too —switched in from Germany and other places, I heerd. He got ruled off at that game, so to speak, and switched into the hawse game. Say, he could take a sorrel hawse with a white blaze and a couple of stockin’s, and turn him into a dun or a brown, and nobody on earth could find out how he done it, or even if it was done. You could turn the hair back, and there was the hide as natural as the skin of a peach. He cleaned ’em up good and plenty.” “Is he still out there?” Pud asked casually.
“You bet he aint, stranger; he left there runnin’. And if you ever see a man round where the hawses is branded this way, that’s the Man from the Desert.”
Hawkins drew a lean finger across the side of Jhis neck and down the left jaw, then he turned up the lobe of the left ear till it was unobservable.
“It was purty poor shootin’ even if Farmer Gray was on the jack-rabbit lope,” he added sorrowfully.
“Who shot him?” Severn queried, a knowing smile on his lips.
Hawkins turned a Rameses-like face and stared at the inquirer; then he said: “There aint nobody out in Spokane asked that question yet.”
Connor leaned across the table and shifted the venue by saying: “Mr. Hawkins, you ought to come down to Belwood to-morrow and see the ponies run; I have a fancy you’ll find a man there with that brand on.”
“Thank you, Mr. Connor; I’ll just about do that; if that old whiskered cuss is there he’ll know a sure thing, I reckon, and he won’t throw me again.”
' I 'HE result of this meeting with the man from the West A was that Pud was down at Belwood Race Course— absolutely unusual for him—the next morning bright and early, while the horses were being galloped.
He was close to stall 11, in stable 4, when a right smart rain drove him into said horse-box shelter. It was a stall devoted to the storage of feed.
Almost immediately he saw heading for his shelter place at a half-trot two men, Jockey Flett and a whiskered individual wearing a gray hat. A touch of inspiration caused Pud to dive into a little mound of bedding straw and cache himself.
This act of Pud’s was absolutely a flash of genius. The whiskers, the gray hat, had shuttered across his mind recalling fifty things; all that Hawkins had said the night before, a man that had appealed to him casually as a man of mystery on the course, a man he had seen more than once handing up to a book-maker a couple of yellow-backed bills of a thousand dollar denomination—a quiet, solemn, unassuming man, unknown as owner, trainer, or in any way professional. It had needed Hawkins’ remarks to crucible these little observances of Pud’s into an assayed something. Pud would have bet a year’s salary that it was the Man from the Desert.
And with Flett! Flett was, in a sense, Pud’s protege, lie was one of the best riders that had ever thrown a leg across pig-skin, and yet, as Pud knew, there was a tangented trend to his mind, a weakness of moral fibre, a sort of superlative good nature that could be utilized.
From his burrow in the straw Connor heard the man’s voice saying:
“I saw you workin’ Magic, Flett. He did the three quarters in one-thirteen under double wraps; be looks good to me for the Hudson Handicap this afternoon.”
“Yes, Mr. Andrews,” the boy answered, “the big brown’s some horse. But as to double wraps, that’s just his way of goin’. He runs his own race from end to end; he don’t need no steels or whip; all he wants is a hand-ride. The boy that hits him in the ribs with a whip just throws the race away, ’cause Magic don’t like it, he sulks. Why, you can’t make him win by more than a head -he’d make a race of it with a pushcart, Magic would.”
“Well, with that good ride you speak of, Flett, he’ll win the Hudson this afternoon—but he’ll be even money. The ink navvies have got him down as the ‘Black Cat’ bet, the one good thing of the day.”
Pud heard the boy chuckle; then he said:
“If some of ’em scribblers had to ride a few races they’d quit studyin’ the dope sheet. What a horse’ll do to-day is what he won’t do to-morrow, and to-morrow’s race is most gener’ly won by the horse that isn’t tryin’ to-day. When the handicapper has levelled all their chances up with his weight scale, it’s racin’ luck that wins; a boy gets shut off, or he’s carried wide, or his mount doesn’t want to try—there’s a hundred things.”
“Old stuff, Flett!” the man in the gray hat growled. “What about the Hudson this afternoon?”
“I can win it on Magic if he doesn’t bear out at the lower turn. We run the reverse way on this damn Belwood Course, and he’s an old soldier; on the other tracks, as soon as I’d turn into the home-stretch with him he’d steal the rail and glue to it. He’s got kind of left-handed in his mouth, I think. This morning in his work he swung wide as I turned for home, and when I hit him with the whip he lay his ears back and propped. I just let him go then, and he straightened out and made a good workin’ gallop of it. If I had the mount on Osceola I could beat Magic in the Hudson.”
“The hell you could! Osceola wasn’t in the money in his last race, a week ago.”
“He wasn’t, sir, because there was no money for him to be into. I had the mount on Malay in that race, and Osceola was just breezin’ in front of me, and Craig was sittin’ with the horse in his lap waitin’ for something to shut him off. Malay didn’t overhaul him—Osceola just come back. As I crabbed along past him Craig said, ‘For Christ’s sake get a move on—I can’t hold this one’.”
There was an ugly note in Andrews' voice as he said: “If I was you, Flett, I wouldn’t sing that song too loud or too often; somebody might bring up the race you put up on Yellow Head at New Orleans. I might kind of forget to mention it myself to one of the Stewards.”
“But you aint got nothin’ to do with Osceola have you, sir? I didn’t know—”
“I don’t own any horses, Flett; but accordin' to what you say I kind of feel like bettin’ about five thousand on him this afternoon—he’ll be ten to one, and there’ll be about ten thousand of that to give as a present to some boy that's got an old mother to support, and a sister at school — just a present, you know. But ! aint going to bet it if Magic can beat him, not by a damn sight I aint. I’ve been watchin’ Osceola myself, and Barney Short, that’s got him, tells me there aint anything in the race outside of Osceola save Magic. If you was up on Short’s horse it would be like sitting down to dinner at home kind of a sure thing; but. you aint. And little Jim Berry, that’s got the mount, can’t ride a finish with you, not by a long chalk he can’t. If Magic ever got to Osceola and just hung that big heavy brown head of his over the chestnut’s nose I guess my five thousand would be burnt up. That kid would start ridin’ and you'd josh him -perhaps two or three of you older boys'd just try to pocket Berry if you thought there was anythin' doin’. That's the worst of racin’ now; an honest, better aint got a chance; he spreads his mazuma on the best horse and two or
three of the old jocks shut him off. ’Taint honest; it just gives the game a black eye.”
“Oh, you damned old hypocrite! ÿou flounder! you catfish!” Pud growled in his straw lair.
“That’s just it,” Flett objected; “no matter what happens the jockey is blamed. That’s what I’ll get this afternoon. If Osceola’s good enough to hold Magic, and I sit tight, as I ought to, they’ll think I aint tryin’; they’ll say I’ve been bought. And if Magic tires under his weight—he’s givin’ the chestnut ten pounds—and is beat, them boobs that sling the ink ’ll call it a weak ride. I’ll be lucky if I get off with a caution. But if I go to the bat to save myself from all this and ride a hurricane finish, Old Magic’ll call me a damn fool and quit cold, for he’ll be doin’ his best without the bud. Up in the stand they’ll yell their heads off sayin’ how I tried to lift the brown home, when all I really done was throw the race away.” “Well, you’ve got to think of yourself, Davie. If they say you rode a weak finish it’ll be you lost the race with them; you’ve got to think of yourself same’s everybody does. You’ve got to get the money while the gettin’s good; you won’t last more ’n a year or two at the game - -you’re puttin’ on flesh now, and any day you may get a fall that’ll put you on the shelf. Magic’s owner don’t bet, and the purse is only a thousand to the winner. You’ve got to think of yourself; do you get me, Flett?”
“I don’t want to get ruled off, Mr. Andrews,” the boy pleaded.
“You won’t get ruled off by ridin’ a strong finish, will you? A boy aint supposed to be pullin’ a horse when lie’s up with the leader, and tryin’ to lift him home with the whip. That race on Yellow Head was a bit dif’rent, Dave; two or three of you ran that race in a little room the night before -d’you remember that? I wasn’t there, but I can bring one or two that was. 1 aint askin’ you to do anythin’ crooked—I never bribed a boy in my life.”
“Oh, you swine!” Pud moaned; “that bullet didn’t cut deep enough.”
“All you’ve got to do,” Andrews continued, “is to ride Magic as if you was in the Futurity and thirty thousand hung up—d’you see, boy? Takin' your advice I'm goin' to win fifty thousand over Osceola, and if you can't win just give the chestnut a fair show, an honest chance, 'cause that’s racin’.”
' I 'HERE was a sound of voices outside, a scuttle of feet, silence in the stall, and peeping out, Connor saw that Machiavelli and Flett had gone.
Cautiously Pud emerged from his hiding place, his mind vastly perturbed. He had played the eavesdropper, which to his punctilious Irish soul was a crime. Also lie must prevent this steal without, hurting the boy.
He was a little Irishman, was Connor, so he took himself back to Manhattan to prepare some course against the time of action, which would be about four o'clock.
By the time Pud was back for the afternoon racing at Belwood he had concluded that there was just one way to
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fix'this unholy thing; tell the boy that he had got to win the race and go straight. Pud was no sleuth for the Jockey Club; if he could crab this crooked game without hurting the best jock on the turf he was going to do it. Pud was pretty human; that was why he was the best loved man in the Valhalla of the Fourth Estate.
After the third race he got a chance to take Flett to one side for a brief halfminute and say: “My boy, you’ve got to win the Hudson on Magic; if you don’t I’m going to say right out in loud print why you didn’t; and I’m going to tell your mother why you didn’t.”
Flett gasped; then he worded a little bluff.
But Connor, ignoring this, said: “You’ve got to ride without a whip; you’ve got to hand-ride the brown home.”
The boy’s face went white; he tried to speak, but his tongue was like asbestos; his articulation was simply a gasp.
Pud’s gray eyes searched the little man’s face solemnly:
“You see, boy, just where you stand. I’ve been your friend, and I’m still your friend so much that nobody on God’s earth can get out of me what I know; but this is pretty near the last call, Dave. You’ve got to leave that whip at home to-day and let the big brown win his own race. I’ll get that damned old hypocrite, but I’ll get him when it won’t hurt you, boy; I’ll wait for him.”
“I’ve got to carry the whip, Mr. Connor,” Flett pleaded. “Mr. Bradley don’t take no advice from the boys that rides the horses he trains; if I suggested it I’d get hell.”
“That’s right, Flett,” Pud said musingly. Then his face cleared and he added: “You’ve got to lose the whip in the race— that happens sometimes. Then if you are beat you’ve got your alibi; I’ll know if it’s on the level or not, and I’ll protect you or slam you, according to how you ride.” “If Magic tries to bear out on me—”
“The whip won’t help you.”
“Not if I hit him, but if I just shake it alongside his head—”
“Look here, Flett,” and Pud’s voice hardened, “are you going to do what I say or have I got to make you?”
“I will, Mr. Connor; as God’s my judge I’ll ride to win. I’ll lose the whip, sir. I must go now; here comes Mr. Bradley.”
JUST before the Hudson Handicap Pud strolled over into the paddock.
Magic was being saddled under a big elm and, as Connor stood beside Trainer Bradley, he heard the latter say; “Flett, I’ve been thinking over what you told me about the brown propping this morning when you cut him in the ribs, and I think you’ll do better by just hand-riding him. Give your whip to the head lad.”
Pud started, and he saw the boy’s face go white as it was turned toward him. In the minds of both was the same thought —had the trainer found out something? Pud could see in Flett’s eyes the troubled, beseeching query, and he shook his head reassuringly.
“But if Magic tries to run out at the turn, sir?” Flett suggested.
“He could do a wide turn and then win,” the trainer answered confidently. “He’s a notional cuss—he’s got brains; he never would stand for the whip, and if he sees it in your hand he’ll remember that you hit him this morning, and expect it again.” “I hope he won’t try to bear out, sir.” “I know he won’t,” the trainer answered with a chuckle. “Don’t you see that leather pricker on the left side of his bit—that’ll keep him in. If he’s coming too wide just give him a little pull in.”
Pud could see from the trainer’s manner that he had no suspicion of anything— just a natural precaution. It was an extraordinary happening under the circumstances.
THEN the cry, “Get up! Mount your horses!” sounded, and the beautiful thoroughbreds, blood bay and golden chestnut, with the big seal brown, Magic, filed out to the course.
As they paraded past the Grand Stand the man in the gray hat stood close to the rail watching for Magic and Osceola. There they came; the chestnut, Osceola, in the lead—No. 1—the position next the rail. Behind him was a bay, Jack Straw; and next was the brown, Magic.
Suddenly Andrews gave a gasp; his cold, fishy eyes widened in an unbelieving stare. The boy on Magic carried no whip. A sudden fear seized the crook’s heart; Flett must have double-crossed him— must have told the trainer something. Perhaps Bradley had found out and had taken the whip away.
Yes, by God, the boy was going to ride it out; there was the sign of confirmation. Casually, as though it were an idle movement, Flett’s right hand had dropped to the saddle cloth, just behind the saddle, and his fingers were caressing, quite idly, the number, No. 3, on the corner of the saddle cloth.
The Man from the Desert knew this as Flett’s message to his girl up in the Stand that No. 3 would go up as the winner. What an escape he had had !
He whirled quickly, and searched with his eyes the tiers of seats up in the Stand. He knew where the girl always sat. There she was, a doll-faced blond in a neat blue serge, whispering into the ear of a short, stout man who stood in the passage just beside her.
Now the man had left the girl’s side and was hurrying down the steps. Andrews knew just what this movement meant; it was a commissioner hurrying to put the girl’s bet on.
Andrews trailed him into the betting ring, pushing his way unperceived through the crowd at the man’s very back. It was a task, for the commissioner was looking for the very best odds. Once he darted across from one line of books to the other side elbowing his way through the mass of humans like a hog tearing a way through a herd of his fellows.
Suddenly he stopped at a book, shoved up a sheaf of bills and said something; then the bookmaker called to bis sheetwriter as he passed the money, “Hundred and twenty to a hundred, Magic.”
That was all Andrews wanted to know. Flett’s girl was backing Magic and the signal was right—the boy was going to ride it out on him. Gad! if his five thousand had already been down on Osceola it would have been burned up!
Like lightning flashed through his mind just what he must do—he must back Magic himself. There were two very good reasons; he would win, and, also, if there were an enquiry, any accusation against him, he could deny it and show that he had bet on Magic, had not touched Osceola.
He stripped a thousand dollar bill from the roll in his pocket, and stepping to the next bookmaker, said, “Sol, a thousand on Magic.”
. The big heavy-paunehed Sol Ikestein growled: “All right, Mister Sure-thingPlayer; but no more—no more to-day.”
Then the Man from the Desert, putting the ticket carefully in an inside pocket of his vest, made his way out to the lawn.
THE horses were over at the mile post, nine of them. Soon they were lined up, the curious mosaic of bright colors shifting like the colored glass in a kaleidoscope as the racers wound in and out, in and out, back and forth, interminably, restlessly.
The Man from the Desert went up into the stand and sat. down. Already he felt that he had won out, his usual good fortune had stood by him; but what an escape! By the merest accident he had saved his five thousand, had destroyed the Strongest evidence against him should there be an enquiry, and also would probably win twelve hundred.
There was a sudden hush in the stand; then a general scraping of feet as people shifted their positions, and three or four cries of, "They’re off!” Somewhere down toward the betting ring a bell had clanged.
Pud Connor, sitting in the Press-box, saw a yellow streamer float along the rail on the far side Of the course; it was the chestnut, Osceola, away to a flying start. A bay had his head lapped on the chestnut’s quarter.
A man standing up in the Press-box, looking through a heavy pair of binoculars, was drooling: “Osceola a length; Jack Straw second; Magic third; Little Ben left at the Post.” His voice died for three seconds and then: “Osceola a length; Jack Straw half-a-length; . Magic third.”
Then he ran through the eight horses as though announcing courses of a dinner.
As they rounded the upper turn Pud gave a little squeak of joy. He could see Flett low crouched over Magic’s withers, and the big brown was stretching out in his mighty stride, creeping up, inch by inch, on the flying chestnut. The boy on Osceola was riding a good race; glued to the rail the chestnut was being rated beautifully—not being pushed, just running free.
As they swung into the straight Pud could see a sudden widening of the space between the chestnut and the brown. “Gad!” he moaned, “Magic’s bearing out; Poor Flett!”
Then something happened; the brown shot forward like a mad horse; he cut in diagonally on the chestnut, and pinned him to the rail; then galloping, galloping in his giant stride, from being lapped on the chestnut, he headed him. Then the chestnut was blanked from their view by the brown.
“My God! Flett’s fouled him!” Pud groaned.
And all up the straight the brown squeezed the chestnut until he was clear; then he came away to romp home.
There was a hush in the stand as the numbers shot up, with No. 3, Magic’s number, on top.
The hush held as the boys turned, dismounted, stripped the saddles off, and passed over the scales. The favorite had won, but—.
THE thousand waited. Men gathered in a big throng at the foot of the Judges’ Stand. Would anything be done?
Ah! yes, a little man in a white jacket with scarlet stars, the rider of Osceola, ran up the steps of the Judges’ Stand.
Somebody in the crowd, a piker who had bet ten dollars on the outsider, cheered; a hundred growled: “Shut up!” for the favorite had won.
Then a little man in a green jacket with red cap crept up over the Bridge of Sighs, the stairway to the Judges’ Stand.
There was a tense wait of three minutes. A steward spoke through the tube to the other side of the track, the numbers were hauled down, rearranged, and when they were run up again No. 1, Osceola’s number, was on top; and Magic’s number was not among the three—he had been disqualified, placed last.
Men cursed the little man, Flett, who, up in the stand, had said to the Judges, with tears in his eyes: “If they hadn’t taken my whip away I could have kept him straight, sirs. I’d just have shaken it at the side of his face and he’d have kept off; but the pricker hurt him.”
Pud had come down to mingle with the others at the Judges’ Stand, and as he turned away he was clutched by the arm by a lanky, sallow-faced man, Lafe Hawkins of the West; and Hawkins was saying:
“The Man from the Desert has got your judges same’s he had ’em out West. I’ll allow I come down to-day to play a few slugs of gold on the ponies and I spotted Farmer Gray. I guess he was afraid I’d split on him, for he wised me up to Osceola, and I bet five hundred at ten to one on the sorrel.”
“Holy Mackinaw!” Pud moaned; “and he bet a thousand on Magic—I had him trailed by a Pinkerton, and he saw the bet laid.”
“He give me the double-cross again—” “No,” Pud explained; “everybody, the Man from Death Valley and all, have been double-crossed save you. I guess the gods just love you—don’t die young.”