W. A. FRASER
AT SEVEN O’CLOCK one May morning, as a merry patter of raindrops tickled the shingled roof of the stabling at Bluemont race track, a small man darted into stall 3 of stable 9, closed the two-part door behind him and burrowed like a mole in a mound of straw.
To this small man lawfully belonged a name, Pudley Connor, but achievement had robbed him of it all except just "Pud.” Daily in the Morning Playman there was a column of turf literature—vivacious, sparkling and wise, a pleasant brook that babbled joyously through horseland in an atmosphere of reality and was signed "Pud.” Therefore, I*udley Connor in his real greatness was “Pud.”
It was a quaint, droll, solemn-eyed, sombre-jawed Irish face that showed just above the gold-yellow straw in number 3 stall. The blue eyes suggested nothing but deep, solemn, complacent thought; the smooth outlined contact of cheek and jaw corroborated this, with the addition of fixedness of purpose.
Suddenly a startling metamorphosis occurred. The heavy eyebrows perked up, the blue eyes narrowed in purple intensity, the square lower jaw jutted out like a bulldog's, the large head half turned on its hidden neck. An ear was glued to the board partition of the stall, and into this eager funnel trickled a thin voice, clear, penetrating, even in its subdued tone. Then the coarse, unbitted baritone of a jockey smothered the falsetto piping.
Pud knew the voices so well that the pine boards became a transparency. He saw a thin, smooth-cheeked, hawk-faced man, and a well-knit, compact youth—Plunger Jack Smade and his unacknowledged bondman, Jockey Flett. "Just as I thought,” Pud commented to himself. The thin voice drawled:
“I saw you galloping Barmon’s Magic Man this morning, Flett. I timed him three quarters in fourteen. He looks good business for the Bluemont Stakes Saturday.”
There was a silent pause, gently broken in stall 3 by the jockey’s bullfrog voice saying: “Yes, I rated Magic Man at about a fourteen gait, I thought. The big brown’s got all his old speed with him. He’s the easiest horse to rate in his work or place in a race I ever had a leg upon. You can just kid him to do anything. No steels, no whip; just whisper him. He’ll bust his heart trying with a gentle hand ride; but give him the bud, one welt in the ribs, and he’ll curl up as if he’d got colic.”
“Hm-ah!” Smade’s drawling tone was like the strum of a cello string. He was attuning Flett’s information to some project. Presently he said: “Well, on his work-out this morning, Magic Man ought to win the Bluemont— with a good ride. He’ll be a short price in the betting. There was a (lock of railbirds timing him this morning, and that pudding-faced little Irishman, Pud, will write a string of lingo in his paper that’ll put the public on. Magic Man’ll be a six to five shot, that’s all.”
Pud cursed softly to himself. “Pudding face!”
“Well, sir,” the coarse voice said, “if that’s the case, I think you’ve got the chance of your life to scorch the ring.” “How’s that, Flett?” The voice was like a razor edge in its incisive eagerness.
“Magic Man was hangin’ on the bit at the finish this morning. He was ready to quit—all out. He can’t take the Bluemont mile; not against such a horse as Osceola.”
“I thought he finished strong. It looked like it. You never moved on him, Flett.”
“You don’t have to, to get the last ounce out of Magic. I’ve ridden Osceola an’ 1 know what he can do. He’ll take Magic Man by the head an’ run him off his legs.”
“The brown colt can hold Osceola at that game, Flett. He’s as fast as anything on the turf today. Little Binks’ll have the mount on Osceola, and you hold it over that boy in a finish more than the chestnut has it over Magic Man. Binks is only a kid; he hasn’t got the strength to finish with you.”
“I guess that’s right, sir. If I had the mount on Osceola I could beat Magic Man in the Bluemont.”
AGAIN THERE WAS a pause, a losing of the voices.
, Pud could hear a foot scraping at the earth bed of the stall. It was Smade’s boot as he revolved something in his mind.
“The race is between Magic Man and Osceola, you think?” he asked presently.
“Yes; for sure.”
“It’ll be a close thing. And with a good ride, you pick Osceola to win, eh?”
“Magic’ll be a hot favorite. There hasn’t been a whisper about Osceola yet, and he ought to be as good as ten to one.” “There won’t be anything said about Osceola either. Jack Gordon don’t advertise much when he’s goin’ to win a race. The chestnut will be ten to one right enough, an anything that beats him’ll cop the purse."
Pud heard the muffled crunch of cautious footsteps in the next stall and burrowed under the straw. Then the steps sounded coming back, and the listener knew that Smadecautious, foxy Smade—had reconnoitred at the stall door and now there would be something doing. The record o! doing came almost at once in the thin voice cutting through the crack.
“Flett, my boy, I was going to have a heavy plunge on Magic Man—a good horse and a good jock for mine always: but if Osceola can win, I can bet on him and knock Mr Bookmaker Joell plumb off the block. I’ll put a crimp ic his roll that will make it look like the collection at a nigger camp meeting.”
“Osceola can win if his jock don’t mess him about.” “You don’t make many mistakes, Flett, and from what you say nothing but your horsemanship will keep the chestnut, Osceola, from copping the Bluemont.”
“It looks that way to me. That kid will get rattled wher I make a bluff at him, an’ he’ll start to ride just when ‘ want him to. He’ll mess Osceola about when he ought tr leave him alone. He may win, even at that.”
“Now, Flett, believing as I do that Osceola is the be* horse. I’m going to bet ten thousand on him. I kno’ you’re a straight boy—won’t interfere with anybody else;
herse in a race, wanting to win on the level or not at all— and if it comes to a neck and neck finish and you know your horse is beat, you'll be too much of a gentleman to throw any cowboy tactics into a decent chap like Binks. Ain’t that so, Flett?”
“The ruddy hypocrite,” interjected Pud silently.
“I haven’t been fined or set down this season for rough riding, Mr. Smade. and if Magic Man can’t win I ain’t goin’ to take any chances of bein' put on the carpet for interferin’ with any other horse in the race. It wouldn't be fair to Mr. Barmon, for they’d disqualify Magic Man an’ take second money away.”
“That’s right, Flett; you ain’t blowing off any hot air there. A jockey has got to be pretty careful these days.”
“I’ll be up against it, sir, whatever I do. riding Magic Man. I can see my finish with the rooters. I f Osceola gets to my mount in the stretch an’ it’s ding-dong between us an’ I sit tight as I ought to, the stand’ll howl that I wasn’t tryin’ a yard. If I pull the whip an’ cut a monogram on the brown’s flank they’ll bust their gizzards cheering. That owl-eyed Irishman, Pud, he’ll sit up there in the press row blinking his peeps, an’ he’ll write in his paper that I made a hurricane finish, that I went to sleep in the stretch and came too late with my mount, that I drew it too fine, that I was playing to the gallery by trying to win by an eyelash. Gosh! I know just how he’ll slop over. And that same whip-play will cost Magic the race, for he’ll sulk. He won’t stand for punishment when he’s doing his best.
“But if I just sit tight, holding my mount straight, the big brown giving his heart’s blood to win, an’ I’m beat, then them quilldrivers’ll ring in something under big headlines about my throwin’ the Bluemont. Investigators will come nosin’ about, an’ the judges’ll have all the bettin’ sheets up. I know. It’s bad for the jockey always. When I get to be a steward I’m goin’ to frame up a race where every horse gets first money; then they’ll all be satisfied.”
“Well, if I were you, Flett, and I saw Osceola had me beat. I’d make that grandstand play; I’d give them the whipping finish. See, Flett? Then there couldn’t be any kick coming to anybody. I’m going to bet on Osceola because he’s the best horse—eight thousand for myself, and two thousand for the little boy that lives in the lane. You remember the old rhyme, Flett, the baa-baa sheep thing:
“ ‘One for my master, one for my dame.
‘One for the little boy that lives in the lane.’
“If anything happens between now and Saturday to switch you from your present idea, give me the office. I want you to ride Freebooter in the Juvenile if Barmon isn’t starting anything. I’m off now; I see Dick coming back to stables with my string.”
PUD WAITED, listening to the echo of departing feet.
When the subtle Smade and the reciprocal Flett had gone, he slipped from the storage stall and plodded across the grassed inner field toward the paddock, his big head heavily drooped in cogitation.
What a something he had stumbled upon; what a glamorous prospect of a newspaper scoop it held—a flashlight, electrifying write-up, asserting that Osceola ought to win the Bluemont next Saturday ! The other fellows on the paper would jeer at him for a fatuous relater of pipe dreams. They would lug forth the dogeared dope book and prove by cold figures that he was a fool and Osceola a skate. And then when Osceola has won—that would be glory. Pud pictured himself clinching his claim to rank as the premier turf writer.
Sw'imming through these azure clouds, rose-flushed, Pud came breast against the paddock gate. And by that strange correlation of forces that so often obtains, just clear of the gate’s inward swing stood Austin Barmon. owner of Magic Man. The small, symmetrical figure awakened a quite forgotten something in Pud’s mind. He owed much to his hand’s labor; but everything else that had helped Pud’s advancement was to be credited to Barmon’s friendship. It was the all-powerful, small, dark-faced man standing there beneath an elm tree that had given Pud Connor the opportunity to write turf gossip.
Pud walked round and round in a little circle, pitting against each other two divergent interests—his own priceless scoop and Barmon’s proprietary right in this shady secret.
Pud knew Barmon’s method well. The horseman would say: “Don’t speak of this in your paper; leave it to me.” Gradually in Pud’s mind the problem simplified itself to the question of whether his real duty was to himself and
his paper or to the owner of Magic Man. the prospective victim of Smade’s unrighteous cupidity.
Fate thrust Barmon forward to claim his own. He sauntered leisurely over to the one in doubt, saying pleasantly :
“Good morning, Mr. Connor. Anything new? Magic Man did a good work-out this morning—how do you like him for the Bluemont?”
Then Pud Connor told the owner just what sort of a chance he had in the stake race—all about it. The wellchiselled dark eyes grew darker, deepened to blackness.
When Pud had finished Barmon said:
“I had a suspicion that Flett was still under the influence of that clever plunger. It’s unfortunate, for he’s the best jock in Canada today. And the other—well, he’s a menace to honest racing. I’m glad that I’ve got a chance at the pair of them. It will cost me the race though. Nobody can ride Magic Man like that boy.”
“If you’ll allow me. Mr. Barmon,” Pud began, “I think I’d go slow. I wouldn’t change the jockey. I’d say nothing about it till he was ready to mount, then I’d take him to one side and tell him to hand his whip over to the trainer. And I’d tell him why, too, sir. He’d win right enough then, if Magic Man had it in him. The money he’d get from Smade wouldn’t be in it with the loss of the forty or fifty thousand dollars a year that he can make for many a day to come.”
BARMON SMOOTHED the grass with the toe of his boot in silence for a long time.
“I must think of my duty to the whole turf world rather than to myself,” he said presently. “If I do that—”
“If something crooked had already occurred,” Pud interrupted, “then there’d be but one course—exposure. But this is altogether something in your own stable; an intended trick that you can frustrate better in this quiet way. It will save a good jockey to the racing, and lord knows we need the good ones. There’s never been anything against Flett except this suspicion of Smade’s influence, and with the boy I believe that’s really a case of gratitude. Smade made a jockey of him and he’s got a foolish misconception of honor. He thinks he ought to stick to the man that gave him his step.”
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Continued from page 19
“But we want to get rid of Smade. We don’t Want him on the turf. He poisons the whole racing atmosphere.”
“You can do that, sir, without touching the boy. If you bring it up now, Flett will deny everything, so will Smade. You have no evidence but my word.”
“That’s sufficient, Connor. The stewards will take your word against a dozen Smades,”
“But remember how clever their talk was, sir. All through it the crook was advising Flett to be an honest boy. He’s so slick that even when he thinks there is no one listening he gives nothing away. With no other evidence, they might wriggle out of it; and after that you wouldn't dare to ride Flett on Magic Man. If you give no sign, Smade will play Osceola in the books for a killing. He bets markers, and you can have the betting shee ts up, and then you’ll have the collateral ev idence that’ll nail him.” Barmon’s dark eyes rested upon the broad, good-natured face of the speaker admiringly.
“You ought to be in the diplomatic service, Connor, ” he said. “You’re too clever for a small job.”
“If 1 were half as clever again, sir, I wouldn’t be quite up to my work. It isn’t a small job; it’s a great big one.”
"I'll think it over, Connor. I believe you’re right. Smade’s been a little too slick for us to catch him so far, but I think he has trapped himself this time. And incidentally he’ll drop plenty to the books over Osceola if Magic Man gets a good ride. I thank you. Connor."
Barmon turned on his heel quickly as he was moving away, saying:
"By the way, I forgot something. What about you? You lose a good story for the Playman. ”
“I know it; I do lose it There’ll be nothing in the paper.”
Saturday morning, when John Smade read in the Playman an unqualified prognostication that Magic Man would win the Biuemont Stakes, he smiled sardonically. When his sharp, red-brown eyes lettered out the statement that Osceola would get the place, he cursed softly. Subconsciously he raced up the column and read, “By ‘Pud.’ ” “The pudding-faced scribbler!’’ he exclaimed. “Who touted him on to Osceola as the contender? That trick’ll cut the
price. The horse will be three to one.”
Smade puffed angrily at his cigar, mentally figuring the loss those few lines would cause him. At ten to one, $10,000 would net $100,000; at three to one, only $30,000.
“Curse that owl-eyed tout! He does me up for seventy thousand. But his Magic Man money will be all to the bad—that’s some consolation.”
AT FOUR O’CLOCK 30,000 humans, t\ high-pressured by the thrill of excitement, waited for the parade of thoroughbreds—lean-necked, muscle-draped princes of the purple blood that would soon come galloping in conscious pride down the broad, narrow-cushioned path of strife; the gay rainbow of the bright silks rounding the moving picture into a delight to the healthy eye.
In the paddock, a circle of men watched the trainer pulling with his strong hands, even his teeth, the girth on Magic Man to the last possible hole. The »big brown lashed out with his long-quartered leg and champed objectingly at the light snaffle in his mouth, clinking staccato notes from its iron bars against his teeth.
"He looks fit. Connor,” the owner said as his eyes rested lovingly on the mighty son of Necromancer.
“The old horse’ll be a handful today, sir,” a voice said at Barmon’s elbow.
He turned quickly.
“Ah. Flett, I—see here!” The owner drew the jockey into the back of the stall.
Pud saw the boy’s face suddenly pale as Barmon talked; then it settled into a look of relief and Flett nodded his head in affirmation of something. The call to mount horses rang through the paddock.
One. two—eight big-quartered, deepchested, silk-skinned sons of blood sires lined out of the little grassed enclosure, in themselves representing the value of a dozen broad-acred farms thronged by plebeian workaday cousins.
“It’s all right, Connor. I’m feeling pretty safe, thanks to you,” the favorite’s owner said as he walked for a few steps beside Pud. “I’ve ordered a little present with your initials on over the winning of the Biuemont—win or lose, I mean.”
“I tell you, Mr. Barmon, that chestnut
son of Seminole is a grand-looking horse. He looks good enough to give Magic Man the time of his life today.”
“Osceola? Oh, yes; he’s a good one. But Magic Man is pretty near the best horse I ever had in my stable—and I’ve had a few.”
Pud turned through the gate to the club lawn at Barmon’s elbow, saying:
“I can’t quite shake off what Flett said about Magic Man hanging on the bit at the three-quarters. This is a mile. Is the colt short of work?”
“Flett is just a jockey, and they’re of a limited mental calibre. With them, the obvious is the alpha and omega of all things. Magic Man is well named, for he’s full of sleight-of-hand; he’s got brains. He knew just as well as the jockey did that he’d done his chore when he was breasting the finish in the three-quarter gallop. He’s a big, good-natured, lazy horse that will do his best in his own way, and he was just letting himself down when there was no more pressure needed. He’ll do the same today at the mile with a good ride; he’ll hold Osceola safe and just win. You’ll see. Magic would make a race of it with a fat steer. Besides, Flett and tire man behind him, clever as they are, don’t know everything. My horse may have been carrying ten pounds more in the lead-cloth that morning than Flett thought. ”
“There’s Smade watching the horses like a hawk,” Pud said, nodding to where the plunger stood at the picket fence on the grandstand lawn. “I wonder if he’s had his plunge on Osceola. He usually waits till they’re at the post.”
“And that plunge will nail him at last,” Barmon added with a ring of satisfaction in his voice. “When I’ve got that proof to back up your story, he’ll get a notice that no further entries will be received from him. We’ll try him on that for a time, and if anything more crops up—well, we’ll see.” The horses had turned from the parade, and as they passed on their way to the chute of the Withers Mile, Pud noticed Jockey Flett’s hand drop carelessly, casually, and the fingers touch for a second the number on his saddle cloth.
“I wonder if that’s a little superstitious touch for luck,” Pud muttered to himself. “Curious thing to do.” And with that comment, the incident passed from his mind.
BUT ACROSS the picket fence, this trifle had struck a man a staggering blow. Smade, watching with his keen, glittering eyes. Magic Man’s jockey, uttered an exclamation as Flett’s fingers caressed for a second number 3 on the saddle cloth.
“What’s Flett giving me?” he ejaculated. “The double cross? His mount’s number is the winner—what the devil does he mean by that? Is he going to ride it out?”
It was an old-time signal between the two, plunger and jockey; the eleventh hour tip, the final sum of knowledge, the jockey’s opinion after his last orders were received from trainer and owner. Today, Smade had not been waiting for it, not expecting it; he had stood there more from force of habit, from an adhering to his rule never to bet till the horses had gone to the post. That simple touch was like the finger of fate, upsetting his carefully laid plans, dashing from his lips the cup of triumph with its golden draught. He stood with knitted brow, pondering. Perhaps it was a bit of forgetfulness on the part of the jockey. No, Flett never made mistakes.
But what was he to do—switch and plunge on Magic Man? Yes—no! If the signal had been a mistake, then indeed he would be in a hole. To plunge on Magic Man, while perhaps Flett threw the race to Osceola? No, a dozen times no. Indeed, it was a case of to bet or not to bet. Somebody must have given Flett to understand that he must win, A little shiver of apprehension trembled the steady nerve of the plunger. Had there been a leak?
He must decide at once, for the horses were turning into the chute for the start.
“I’ll just stand on the ground and watch this,” Smade said to himself. “I don’t like
the looks of it. If I don’t bet on the race and I’ve got no horse in it, it’ll take a devil of a lot of talk to put anything up to me. But I guess Flett’s going to win, right enough,” he muttered the next minute. “He’s got Magic Man as quiet as a lamb, nosing the barrier for a fly away home. Ah, yes, I guess it’s right enough.”
AS HE SPOKE, from the chute a stream / \ issued, a billowy, undulating rapid, upon the waves of which rode gay-colored people in cockleshell craft. Barmon’s greysilk jacket fluttered in front; then a ghostly white, black mottled, drew up, sped level for fifty yards and showed in front. Soon a chestnut head nodded beckoningly half a length in the lead.
“Gad. what a combination!” Smade muttered. “Osceola with that speed, ridden by a pinhead boy that thinks he’s riding quarter dashes in Texas. And Flett’s kidding him. Binks thinks he’s going to gallop on and steal tire rail. Oh, you babe! How’d I feel now if I had ten thousand on you?”
Down the back stretch raced the two blooded knights, the equine warriors, and at their heels trailed the reaching, striving mob of another class. And always, with pricked ears, Magic Man’s brown head rose and fell rhythmically between the rail that his jockey’s foot almost touched as he sped and the chestnut quarter of Osceola. Strive and drive and cluck as he might, Binks could not draw away the clear length he needed to close in on the rail.
And Flett, sitting like an infant in its mother’s lap, nursed the big brown gently, knowing that the horse knew, and that there was nothing to be done but let the brainless one on Osceola worry the gallant chestnut.
Around the lower turn, unchanged in position, they raced ; and men in the grandstand and on the lawn spoke foolish words of how Osceola had the favorite beaten ; and others in rebuttal asserted that Flett was just kidding the boy.
At the turn into the straight, came the time when all who rode must drive. With whip and spur and knee, the second division urged their horses and scrambled for place. And the brown and the chestnut ran a race of sameness, tantalizing, monotonous, a coupled-up parade.
All up the stretch, Magic Man, big and powerful in his stride, hammered the sounding earth with his strong hoofs, glued against the rail. And, half-a-length to the good, the chestnut, urged by the clamoring impon his back, strained his mighty muscles to the eager call of his stout heart, his neck rigid with endeavor and his ears pricked in honesty. But ever at his shoulder, like little lamps of danger, gleamed the red, widegasping nostrils of Magic Man,
In curious conglomerate thought, Smade watched the struggle. Why had he weakened? Why hadn’t he the §10,000 on Osceola—or $20,000? Surely Magic Man was hanging in coward mutiny on the bit. And yet it was a fool atop the chestnut; not one who held the other horse safe, satisfied with his lead; rather one who, if Osceola had it in him, would be two lengths—yea, ten lengths—in front. A brainless cub who had raced from the barrier was even now riding with nothing in hand for the real time of racing, the time of winning, the last dozen strides.
TLETT BEYOND, crouched close to the 1 brown wither, had never moved, had never taken from the gallant Magic Man an ounce of his strength in uselessness. That was art; it was a perfection of something, which is art. It was the one thing in excellence that Plunger Smade could understand—this priceless horsemanship. He knew every mood of the jockey’s riding; knew that a patient wait meant victory'. The touch on the saddlecloth number had really been a message.
At Smade’s elbow, all about him, men cast the shadow of their knowledge before the event.
“The outsider wins!”
“Osceola's got the favorite!”
“Magic Man’s beat!”
One. poisonous of mind, swore that Jockey Flett was throwing the race, pulling the favorite; that strong arm was king.
Now the grey silk flutters higher in the crackling wind; a demoniac contortion of struggle twists Flett’s face. The brown is pushed up. His muzzle, black with the dew of strife, registers on the chestnut’s neck. Inch by inch, with the lengthening of his stride, he eats into the lead Osceola has held for almost a mile. Now the two heads, golden chestnut and lacquer brown, rise and fall together, the breath from their scorched lungs searing each other’s eyes. The jockey in grey surges his shoulders forward in smooth, rhythmic time to the cadence of the beating hoofs beneath. He lifts the tired equine head gently with the bit, his
hands hold the sweet strength of a woman’s.
On Osceola a thing of many joints—a flabby doll, flail-armed—rocks drunkenly athwart the withers of its mount. It sways the pendulum of Osceola’s delicate poise. The horse’s smooth-gliding muscles quiver and rasp; the blood hangs in his strained heart and thickens; his eyes fight the blue glaze that blurs them. Something black glides past. He falters, sways, a cataract of forms and noises swirl around and about him; he is the broken toy of Babe Binks’s foolishness.
As if death had blown his breath across the many battalions, a hush stilled the clamor. In the stand, a pair of race glasses fell from nervous fingers. Number 3 crawled up a post, and the stand rocked with the roar of many throats, the surge of a multitude, Magic Man had won.