Wherein poetic justice is dispensed
W. A. FRASER
SIX mounted men, with one led horse, plodding along the dusty road in the twilight, stopped as the one who rode in front lifted a hand. They had just emerged from a straggling forest of oak and ash, and on their left was a dying farm—a dead farm; and like a crude tombstone a groggy log house stood between the road and some straggling buildings, by grace of words, barns and stables.
“How far we be from Kansas City, Tuck?” the man who rode in front asked.
“I’d say six or eight miles, Howard.”
“This is kinder the way of it,” Howard said; “we don’t want to be hangin’ ’round ’em fair grounds all night nor in the mornin’; what we want is to get there ’bout noon, enter Jim Malone in some race that suits—threequarters —-get the purse soon ’s we can, an’ fade away.”
“That’s ’bout right,” somebody concurred.
The leader added: “We’ll try for a camp here at this farm. There’ll be stablin’ for Jim Malone anyhow, an’ it don’t matter ’bout our hawses.” ■
As they turned into a lane bordered each side by drunken fences, six razor-back hogs came on the run, voicing a plaintive squeal of hunger; and they could see in a little field to the left, the gaunt frames of three halfstarved cows. Desolation, hopeless misery, was stamped on everything in sight. In the front yard, blossomed chips, hacked-up billets of wood; a rusty bucksaw leaned groggily against a buck, and the woodpile was just a collection of gnarled, twisted sycamore limbs.
“I reckon God’s jumped over this farm when He’s been ’round helpin’ the sparrer,” Buck remarked drily.
“I calc’late the boss has got a still back in ’em woods, an’ when he’s full up of moonshine all this junk seems good an’ proper,” Bill White declared.
They saw a face, a ghost-like woman’s face, for a second at a window, from which a calico curtain had been twitched to one side, then the calico blotted out the worn, tired face.
In the chip yard, Howard indicated the rough door with a thumb, and Bill White slid to the ground, and knocked on the wooden panel. The men sitting their horses had each slipped a hand to the butt of a forty-five gun.
There was no response to the knock; and Bill White lifted the latch, but the door had been barred. The men could hear Bill expostulating with somebody within, then he beckoned to Howard. Howard dismounted, and, at the door he could hear a woman’s querulous voice telling them to go away. But Howard’s voice was soft, the leisurely Missourian’s voice with its calming drawl and he explained that all they wanted was water for their horses and a pot of coffee for themselves.
Finally, the door swung open, displaying the ever apparent atmosphere of privation. Behind a tall gaunt woman, two children, a boy and girl, stood, peering around her skirts at the intruders. The woman’s eyes held misery trouble, apprehension, suspicion—they were furtive, like the eyes of a hunted fox.
The leader of the riders drew some bills from his pocket, and selecting three or four of small denomination said: “Here, Marm, 'we wamt that you’d accept pay for the trouble. We’ve got a race hawse with us that we’re takin’ in to the Fair Grounds for racin’ to-morrer, an’ we want to
rest him up here all night. ¡That’s why we kinder bu’st in on you, marm.”
The woman took the bills, saying, “I ain’t got much in the house, cause— I ain’t got much, but—”
“You’ve got plenty for us, marm,” Howard answered,
“ ’cause we’ve got some ourselves.”
There was a magnificent magnetism about the speaker; all Clay County, and Jackson County, almost all Missouri knew of Howard’s fascinating personality, and his affection for poor people, for the ordinary strugglers; and the men who rode with him had imbibed this appealing spirit.
So, by the time they had finished a simple supper they learned the cause of the barred door, the hopeless poverty. The woman’s husband, Jim McLean, was dead, and she was battling all the terrors of the world.
Howard was saying, “So, marm, you thought we was robbers?”
“Bein’ robbers couldn’t frighten me none, ’cause there ain’t nothin’ to rob; but there’s been a heap of trouble since Jim was murdered by ’em train bandits.”
There was a ripple of startled interest as Mrs. McLean said this, but the woman was wording the terrible thing that had been weaving back and foith in her mind for days and days and weeks.
“Jim was kinder foolish ’bout tryin’ to do somethin’ for somebody else; that’s why I ain’t got much when Jim died. When that gang of murderers held up the train at Winston, my man, Jim, he tries to fight ’em off, ’cause be worked for the Chicago and Rock Island; and them— they was like bloodhounds, them robbers—they shoots Jim down in cold blood.”
The woman’s guests shuffled their feet; some of them eased the tension by biting unneeded pieces of tobacco from a black plug. They could have gone outside, ostensibly to the stables, but they sat there fascinated.
Mrs. McLean was wiping her tired eyes with the corner of a tattered apron. “I guess havin’ someone to talk to ’bout it kinder lets down the tears,” she said; “I’m sorry I’m like this, men, but Sat’day I’m goin’ to be sot out on the road—me an’ the two little ones.”
“How come that?” Howard asked.
“Jim he owed five hundred dollars on this place—he’d a had it paid off now if he hadn’t been murdered^an’ Lawyer Brand ’s comin to seize everythin’, Sat’day, if I ain’t got the money for him.”
“You ain’t got it?” Howard queried.
The woman gave a queer rasp as if she laughed at the question, “I ain’t got enough to buy a bag of flour, an’ we ain’t been eatin’ much.”
Howard spoke: “Mrs. McLean, I’ve heard ’em train hold-up fellers never kills anybody except they’ve jus’ got to, an’ if there was a fight on at that hold-up p’raps they didn’t mean to kill Jim. I guess if you was to let ’em know how the killin’ of your husband left you flat like this, they’d try an’put it to rights.” »*,'
“Yes, Marm,” Bill White added, “I jus’ reckon they would. I’d chip in—I mean if I see any of the gang I’d offer to—”
“You ain’t goin’ to see ’em none—nobody don’t see ’em long ’nough to get ’em swung by the neck; it’s been over a year now that they ain’t caught ’em,” the woman declared despondently.
Woden rose from a crude three-legged stool he had been sitting on, saying, “Guess I’ll go an’ see Jim Malone put to bed.”
The others followed him, telling Mrs. McLean that they would sleep in the stable, and if she could just give
them some coffee and corn bread in the morning it would be all right.
A couple of riders carried an armful of chips from the yard, and they built a little fire in the stable yard, the flickering red tongues of flame lighting up and rendering sombre their faces as they sat or reclined on the ground after fixing up their horses.
“That’s the dangedest thing I ever run into!” Tuck said reminiscently.
Howard nodded. “You’ve heard of chickens cornin’ home to roost, ain’t you, Tuck?”
Bob Frost drew his long legs in and sat up ; there was an angry jerk to his lean body. “I reckon,” he snarled, “that naggin’ ain’t goin’ to get you nowhere, Howard—nowhere that’s a good place.”
“I don’t calc’late that I said the chickens was yours, Bob, but if you want ’em take ’em. You see that poor woman in there—■”
“An’ you mean, Cap’n, that she’s a widder ’cause 1 shot down her husband when he’d got you covered with his gun?”
“He didn’t have no gun, Bob, jus’ a crowbar; an’ a man that’ll tackle with a crowbar fellers that’s armed, shouldn’t get shot nohow.”
“You’d ’ve made a good preacher, Howard; an’ some day it’s goin’ to get us caught—if people gets thinkin’ we’re only bluffin’ ’bout shootin’.”
But Woden interfered: “Bygones is bygones, boys; no use squealin’ like ’em hawgs was doin’—let’s forget it.” “No we ain’t goin’ to forget it,” Howard declared: “we’ve got to do somethin’ ’bout it. That poor woman an' her two kids, ’em little children you see there, ‘re-goin’ to he set out on the road, an nobody in the world to help ’em if that money ain’t paid that lawyer shark when he comes here Sat’day. What we’ve got to do is make good, boys.” “We ain’t got the money,” Tuck declared.
“We’ve got to get it,” Howard said in his soft drawL “And let the race go?” Woden queried. “I ain’t fed an' trained Jim Malone all summer to switch jus’ when he’s ready to go to the post.”
“We ain’t goin’ to give up no race, Fred; that’s where we’re goin’ to get the money—we’re goin’ to back Jim Malone an’ win it.”
“An’ if Jim don’t win the race, what ’bout it?”
“We’ll have tried, Tuck,” Howard answered, “an’ we’ll feel kinder easier in our minds if we’ve been willin’ to help. Don’t that go with you, Bob Frost?”
“It’s all right if you say so, Cap’n.”
N THE morning, at the first shimmering streaks of red and gold, topped by purple gray, that colored the dead sky to the east, the riders were up, their horses fed, and they found Mrs. McLean manoeuvring over a hot stove on which simmered a pot of coffee.
Before they left, Howard said: “Marm, don’t you go on frettin’ an’ kinder feelin’ like you was goin’ to die ’bout that feller cornin’ Sat’day. I got friends in the Chicago an’ Rock Island at Kansas City, an’ I’m goin’ to tell ’em that they’ve got to pay you five hundred dollars for your husband gettin’ killed fightin’ their battles; they’ll do it; men like that ain’t hard hearted, it’s jus’ that they ain’t never got the rights of it—been told lies. We’ll get you that money, marm—you jus’ cheer up yourself.”
The six men rode in to the Kansas City fair grounds separately, at considerable intervals, but their horses were tethered close to each other, and not far from the entrance gate. The Grand Stand was situated some distance from the entrance, almost a sixteenth of a mile.
Woden was the racing man of the outfit; he had always had a race horse, and Jim Malone belonged to him. So he looked over the races for the day, which were the usual mixed affairs of sport such as were held at all autumn fairs, trotting and running races alternating. Woden entered Jim Malone in the second running race, a threequarter mile event, with a purse of $500. It was the main event of the afternoon. Then he picked up a jockey called Gopher Blake.
There were ten horses entered. It became evident that a horse named Raba, entered by Ben Morris, would be a strong favorite. Raba was by the Western horse, Salvator, that had been called the greatest horse in the world; and Raba himself had won races. Jim Malone was unknown to the bettors. Many of the horses entered were
in the same category. Racing at the fair grounds meet was somewhat a catch-as-catch-can affair.
When the second race was called, the associates of Howard backed Jim Malone with the bookmakers for practically all the money they had in their pockets, for they knew that they had the necessity of making up five hundred dollars for the lone widow, in addition to satisfying the desire for wealth of which they were possessed.
Still, they would have done very well if Jim won, for the pencilers were laying twenty to one against him; those worthies considering that all the money taken in on any horse but Raba was found money. Raba outclassed the dogs he was asked to meet; besides there was something doing; if it came to a close finish there were valid reasons to suppose that Raba would get the decision. And that was what Sagebrush Dan, the hard-bitten chief bookmaker knew. Sagebrush Dan played no game without an ace in the hole, and he would have had that little crooked twist to the race even if he knew that Raba could win by twenty lengths.
As the Gopher was about co mount Jim Malone, Woden said: “This is a mighty good little hawse, son, an’ he’s beat better hawses than ’re in this race. Don’t beat him up, son, ’cause I’m powerful fond of Jim; he’s the truest, gamest bit of hawse flesh ever come from Kentucky. If he gets his head in front, he’ll keep it there some; you don’t have to belt him into a lead of two or three lengths for fear he’ll quit, ’cause he won’t.”
Now the starter had only one task laid upon his official shoulders, which was to see that the favorite did not get killed off at the start; no need to worry over giving any of the others a bad send-off, for Raba, away well, would let the old machine run well oiled. So when the flag went down Jim Malone, being free of all enmity from the starter, left the scratch nose and nose with the son of Salvator. A sixteenth of a mile, and the Gopher knew that Malone’s owner was not—as he had suspected at the time—just a foolish owner; his mount was running free,
thrusting into the bit. And the boy on Raba, seeing this brown clinging thing at his side, was clucking to the bay.
The Gopher grinned. “You goin’ t’lay an egg, Danny?” he rasped.
“Pull out, Gopher,” Danny snarled, “or I’ll give you the whip!”
“Give it to Raba!”
The intermediate spaces between these remarks lay over a sixteenth-of-a-mile, and they were swinging around the turn for the short-stretch run. In the stretch, the brown head of Jim Malone crept up and up till the tawny muzzle was in front of the bay head of Raba. And Danny had drawn his whip.
The Gopher, bearing in mind the words of Jim’s owner, that the horse, his head once in front would keep it there, rode the brown the race that he loved so well to ride, the safe race on a' safe horse, to sit tight and let the horse keep his lead of a neck. He could see that Raba had nothing left for a final spurt; Danny was taking out of him the last ounce. And the Gopher was vain, vain as a successful rider often is: to win by a head meant acclaim from the stand—• tribute to his riding—that he had outridden the jockey on Raba.
So, past the finish post they raced, the brown head nodding up and down at each stride just in front of the bay.
There was almost a hush, no clamorous cheer, .for nobody had backed Jim Malone—nobody knew the horse, nobody knew the owner, he was not a native son. Then the hush was broken practically by gasps, little cries of astonishment, for Raba’s number went up as the winner.
When a man, in indignation, ripped out an oath, declaring it a steal, another said, “It’s the angle! From where you stand here the angle of sight makes a hawse look like he’s winnin’, an’ the other’s got him by a head.”
Another declared: “There ain’t no use havin’ a judge up there in the box if fellers here on the ground knows what’s won. There ain’t nobody but Raba win this race, ’cause
the judge seen him fust, an’ he’s the only one knows/’ Howard and Woden had watched the race from the infield, and as the horses flashed past the judge, they had stood behind the finish post across the course from the stand, and they knew Jim Malone had won by a neck; there was no oblique angle in their line of sight to cause uncertainty.
The two men looked into each other’s eyes, and Howard said: “Robbed! This is what we’ve been up against, Fred, all our lives. The upright ones have robbed us, and when we’ve got it back they’ve called us outlaws. If Bob Frost was acrost here now, an’ wanted to ping that thief judge I wouldn’t stop him!”
“I got to get Jim Malone tended to,” Woden said, as the horses, turned, were coming back.
“Just a minute,” Howard said. “Soon’s you’ve got Jim rubbed down an’ blanketed, you’d best pull out. You know where we was to head for, an’ I’ll see if there ain’t some way of gettin’ that purse, yet.”
“I wouldn’t do nothin’, Dick, if I was you.”
“I give that widder a promise, Fred, an’ I’m goin’ to try keep my word. ’Em two kids ’re starvin’ jus’ because one of our fellers killed their dad.”
Across by the stand, Howard wove in and out among the race people, and as he came upon each one of his associates he said, “Drift in to the bar.”
And presently, as if by chance, the five riders of the road were having a casual drink in the bar, which was beneath the grand stand. All along the oak planks of the bar, the string of men were discussing the last race, rather the verdict of the judge was what they discussed, argued about.
A high, shrill voice penetrated through the din of clinking glasses, and ‘Here’s how!’ saying: “Sagebrush Dan held out on Raba, didn’t lay a dollar agin him, an’ when Sagebrush wants a hawse to win the judge says he’s won!”
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It happened that Sagebrush had just stepped into the bar for a drink, and it happened that he was having his drink at the elbow of Howard. The bookmaker had the name of being a hard-boiled citizen, a man to be reproached with extreme caution. He punctuated the shrill-voiced remarks of the man down the bar with a bang of his glass on the oaken shelf, and bellowed: “Any man that says that Raba didn’t win that race, that the judge took the race away from the second hawse, is a liar!”
He was a big man, and held his shaggy head aggressively upright as one who dominated all; and now, throwing back his shoulders, he stood defiant.
Sagebrush turned, as a soft voice, with its Missourian drawl, at his elbow, said: “Stranger, you ain’t right ’bout that race, an’ the judge wa’nt right: I was acrost from the judge and Jim Malone won by a clear neck.”
The big man looked into the composed face of the speaker, and im.o the brown eyes that were curiously round, smallish, absolutely vindictive in their steadfast placidity—they were what would have been called piercing eyes.
Then Sagebrush said, practically roared it: “If you say that the judge threw that race you’re—”
The bookmaker ceased speaking, his large mouth, with the heavy lips hung open, and his eyes seemed to have enlarged to double their size. He took a quick look down to the something hard, and small, and round that pressed against his full belly.
There was a sneer on the lips of the man that held the pressing something in his right hand that was shoved into his coat pocket.
Now Sagebrush was an expert bookmaker, he knew all about odds—that just now he hadn’t a million to one chance if he called the other man a liar. He was also quick witted, as a bookmaker should be. He waved his two big hands over his head as an expression of disgust, also in the way of safety first, and said: “Ba-aah! you’re like the rest of these desert rats, you don’t know whether a hawse has won or not. You make me sick!” He whirled, and pushed his way through the crowd.
Nobody knew why Sagebrush Dan, bad man, had quit, had taken water, had crawfished, but they knew he had. They looked curiously at the quiet man who had shut the big man up.
Then somebody recognized Howard as having been with Woden. “That’s one of the owners of Jim Malone,” he said. “He looks to me as if he was a fighin’ wildcat if he got riled. Guess they’re sore as hell havin’ that race stole from Jim Malone—’cause it was. Guess he’d’ve hopped Sagebrush if Dan’d spit out that word liar.”
Howard saw that now they were attracting attention, and he left the bar followed by the four others.
Out on the track, horses, pulling the old high-weeled sulkys, were scoring for the second heat of a trotting race, and the crowd was centring its attention on this event.
Howard drew up to where his four companions formed a group, and said: “We’ll give Fred a start with Jim Malone, then you boys ride out an’ go a little way along past the gate leadin’ my hawse. Don’t dismount, ’cause I might join you in a hurry.”
They saw Woden ride out leading Jim Malone. After a time they mounted their horses and rode outside.
A little later, Howard sauntered down to the gate. It being half-way of the afternoon, nobody was coming in, and
the gatekeeper was sitting in the shade of the high board fence. Howard spoke to the man; “Judge Keith wants you up to the box. There’s been some fellers caught that’ve got in without badges, an’ they’re blamin’ you for lettin’ ’em through.”
The man stared: “That’s a dang lie—I don’t let nobody through without a badge.”
“You’d bes’ go tell the judge that, an’ rip ’em fellers that’s sayin’ that up the back. I’m to keep the gate till you get back.”
As soon as the man had swung up the gravelled drive with irate strides, Howard turned to the left and halted in front of the wooden booth that held the ticket-seller. The man was counting a big pile of bills sorting them into packages, which, after passing a rubber band around, he depostied in a steel box on a table at his elbow, as Howard thrust his face into the open wicket.
“On dollar!” the man said, reaching into a rack for a ticket of admission.
Howard thrust a dollar bill through the wicket and took the pasteboard slip. “You’ve got a heap of money there, mister,” he said; then he laughed: “Say, what ’d you do if Jesse James and his gang come along an’ held you up for that?”
The man drew out a drawer of the desk, and pointed to a .45 Colt gun. “I’d give him that, friend,” he said: “I’d be all
ready for him.” He dropped his eyes to shove the drawer back, but raised them in a startled state at the well-known click of a gun hammer being cocked. He was gazing into the menacing black maw of a .45 in a hand that rested on the wicket ledge three feet from his head. And the man who was holding the gun with such deadly steadiness was saying in a low, passionless voice: “Pass your gun out to me, butt first. A wrong move and you die quick. Thanks! Now the bills.”
The gun that rested on the window ledge was as fixed as a piece of artillery, while the left hand of Howard slipped the bales of bills into his pockets. Once he said, with crisp intenseness: “Move quick!”
When he had all the money in his pockets, Howard commanded: “Lock that door and give me the key. I oughter drill a hole through you,” he added reflectively as he pocketed the key, “to keep you from raisin’ a row till I get a start—-yes, I’d best do that.”
The small round brown eyes that had seared with fear the soul of Sagebrush Dan seemed to drill the forehead of the ticket seller as if they were bullets; he shivered. “I know who you are,” he gasped.
“What of that?”
“Just this”—the man was panting— “they say you boys never kills from blood lust. I’ll make a deal with you; I’ll give you five minutes start, an’ my word I won’t raise no alarm—I got a right to bargain for my life, ain’t I?”
“I’ll take your word,” Howard said. And then, whirling away, he raced down the road to where four men sat their horses. He swung to the saddle, then they rolled their spurs up the flanks of the horses, and galloping, swept away to the south.
As Howard and Bill White rode stirrup to stirrup, the former said: “I got all was in the box office; more ’n 'nough to get the widder an’ ’em kids outer the starvation hole.” He chuckled: “All the purse money was to come from the takin’s at the gate, an’ the owner of Raba don’t get the purse after all—Jim Malone gets it.”
“For oncet justice has been done all ’round,” Bill White declared solemnly.