Kelsey Skates Again
Commencing the mad, mad tale of the hockey scout who talked himself out of a hole and then bought himself right back in again
A TWO-PART NOVELETTE
A JANGLING telephone awakened Skates Kelsey, that famous ivory-hunter, at seven o’clock in the morning.
It was, for him, an ungodly hour. He tried to unglue his eyes. Shuddering, he crawled out of bed. On bare feet he tottered across a floor colder than the roof of an iceberg.
For if Mr. Kelsey had been awakened at an ungodly hour he had also been awakened in an ungodly place. A back bedroom in the Hotel Great Western, no less, in the town of Prairie Dog, which was located precisely in the heart of nowhere.
Groaning, he reached the wall telephone, growled hoarsely:
“Yeah? Kelsey speaking.”
“Just a moment, please. Long distance calling.”
Kelsey was wide awake now. He shuddered again. Ix>ng distance meant Ben Marron. The head man. Mister Big. The iron-handed, eagle-eyed, gravel-voiced prexy of the Chiefs.
“Kelsey?” Harron’s voice rasped wrathfully in his ear. “So you’ve come to life again, huh? I’ve been trying to find you for two days. Where the heck have you been? Drunk again, hah?”
“Now wait a minute, Ben. It was this way—”
Over miles of wire came an irate bellow. “I send you three hundred miles to report on that goalie at Keewatin Falls. And you never got there. You never even went there. Only yesterday I find out he’s been put on Detroit’s negotiation list.”
“That’s why I didn’t go, Ben. We couldn’t have signed
“And I told you to be in Prairie Dog two days ago to sign Bud Miller and bring him down here. And why two days ago? Because he was exactly twenty years old two days ago. We hang around a whole year waiting for him to grow up so he ain't under amateur control any more. When did you get to Prairie Dog?”
Kelsey cleared his throat. “Well now, Ben, it’s a long story—”
“Long or short, it’s a lie !” bawled I larron. "You should have had Miller’s name on a Chief contract one minute after he hit his birthday. You’ve lost two days.”
"He won’t run away, Ben. He’s on our list. Nobody else can grab him.”
“That’s what you think. It was your job to see that his name was on our list, but you slipped up. I just found that out. And I just got a tip that Blackjack Snaith is prowling that territory right now.”
"Ben,” said Kelsey hastily, "I’ll go right out and sign that kid this minute.”
"If you’re lucky! If Blackjack Snaith doesn't steal the best prospect in amateur hockey right out from under your nose, you chump. You know what that pirate is like. He could steal the buttons off your red flannels.”
"The kid is as good as signed,
Ben. Don’t worry.”
“Sign him then. And hustle him East. Tonight. And look—”
"If you’re too late, if you don’t sign him, you’re fired !"
"Holy cats, Ben !”
"I mean it. I’m fed up with yom antics. Don’t send me any collect telegrams asking for money. I won't open ’em. And no collect phone calls, either. 1 won’t answer ’em. This is your last chance. Be on the train with that rookie and a signed contract tonight or you’re through!”
"I heard you the first time, Ben," said Kelsey meekly. The phone clicked smartly in his ear.
He padded across the icy floor, shivering, and shut the window. He poured himself a glass of water as a substitute for the morning eyeopener. Skates Kelsey was on the wagon again. He shuddered at the taste of the stuff.
"I may get used to it in time,” he sighed.
VY ƒ ASHED, shaved and dressed,
* V Kelsey descended the stairs of the Great Western fifteen minutes later. He was a bulky, middle-aged man with a ruddy, good-humored face and a bulbous nose. As he came down he peeked into his wallet. Ben Harron had been unjust in accusing his scout of having been on a tear; Kelsey had been on the wagon for a noble spell.
But a two-day poker session had been disastrous. Kelsey winced.
“Worse than I thought,” he mumbled.
Railway tickets for himself and Bud Miller. Twelve dollars and ninety cents in cash. It wasn’t much, and he was a long way from home; but it would do. He could squeeze by on that.
"Yes, sir, Ben, I’ll be on that train tonight and no foolin’,” he mused fervently.
Behind the desk at the foot of the stairs the proprietor of the Great Western dozed gently. His name was Ab Hodge and he was a hockey fan. He opened one eye.
"Friend,” said Kelsey, "can you tell me where I’ll find Bud Miller?”
Mr. Hodge, a massive old gentleman with the finest handle-bar mustache Kelsey had ever seen, opened the other eye and said: "Right now you’ll most likely find him down at the rink. After eight o’clock you’ll find him at McCrabb’s store, workin’ like a dawg.”
"At the rink? What’s he doing at the rink, this time of day?”
"Practice! Big game tonight, mister. We’re playin’ the Mustangs. Biggest game of the winter.”
“Where is the rink?”
"Go on out that door,” said Ab Hodge with a yank at the mustache, "turn to your right and keep on travellin’ until you see an overgrown barn with a roof that looks like it’s going to take off in the first high wind. That’ll be the rink.”
“Go inside and look around until you see a tall young feller scootin’ around the ice faster'n you ever saw anybody move unless he was bein’ blowed up by dynamite. That’ll be Bud.”
“I’ll find him.”
“And don’t try to steal him for your hockey team, if you’ve got one, mister. Last feller who tried it got chased outa town,” said Mr. Hodge, settling back in his chair and closing his eyes again.
Skates Kelsey went out thoughtfully. He could see that
he wasn’t going to win any popularity contests in Prairie Dog if he took Bud Miller out of there on the night train. Especially with the Mustangs in town for the biggest game of the winter.
At this hour Prairie Dog’s wide main street, flanked by huddled frame buildings that looked shabby and bleak in the cold light of early morning, was almost deserted. In the distance Kelsey heard the hoot of a train, the morning local pulling away from the station. A ramshackle flivver lurched around the corner and skidded to a stop in front of the hotel. Kelsey, heading toward the rink, glanced back.
The driver climbed out and unloaded a couple of grips. A passenger crawled out of the back seat.
The passenger was lanky and lean and very tall, and he wore an overcoat down to his heels and a derby hat perched primly on top of his head, so that he seemed to be about eight feet high.
Kelsey took one look. He blinked. He gurgled.
"Great Scott!” choked Kelsey.
He would have recognized that elongated parcel of sin anywhere.
“Blackjack Snaith !”
The trails of Skates Kelsey and the hungrylooking Blackjack Snaith had crossed many times — frequently to the sorrow of Mr. Kelsey. For Blackjack Snaith was scout for the Panthers, rival club in the same league, and he was Kelsey’s mortal enemy. Kelsey had bitter reason to know that Blackjack Snaith was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a skeleton in a derby hat, a shrewd, suave fellow utterly devoid of virtue and innocent of principle where the interests of the Panthers were concerned. Kelsey did not believe Blackjack Snaith had ever been guilty of robbing hen roosts; but he knew from sad experience that Mr. Snaith would steal a nice plump young amateur hockey player without a qualm. With relish, in fact, if it happened to be a hockey player tagged for delivery to the Chiefs.
And Blackjack Snaith was in Prairie Dog !
Kelsey squeaked with dismay. There could be only one answer to that. Bud Miller!
Kelsey turned up the collar of his overcoat and fairly galloped down the street.
He had tangled with Blackjack Snaith before. And he had learned that if you ever got the jump on Mr. Snaith you couldn’t afford to sit down and pat yourself on the back. You had to keep right on jumping—but smartly.
Skates Kelsey had no desire to meet his old enemy just now. Not while Bud Miller was still unsigned.
And besides, Mr. Kelsey owed Blackjack Snaith ten dollars. The debt, consequence of an overoptimistic bet on a Stanley Cup series, had been outstanding for many months. And Blackjack Snaith was the sort of man who had no delicacy with people who owed him money.
AT THE end of three blocks in the cold dry air Skates Kelsey was puffing. A good many years had passed since he was one of the fleetest defensemen who ever went sixty minutes in the days of seven-man hockey and no substitutes. But when he reached the Prairie Dog rink the old war horse almost whinnied. He sniffed. A real hockey rink has a smell all its own. Kelsey had sampled that frosty fragrance in towns large and small, from coast to coast.
The Prairie Dog team was having a workout. The rink echoed with shouts, the clatter of sticks, the thud of a puck banging against the boards. Players in shabby jerseys swooped and swerved on the glassy surface. A stout man in a fur coat stood by the fence and bawled, “Bring it down!”
Kelsey spotted Bud Miller. The big kid stood out like a sore thumb—a tall, rangy lad with a tousled mop of black hair. Carrying the puck out from behind the net, skates flashing.
Kelsey clucked with satisfaction. There was his prize package all right.
The first time he had seen the kid in action Miller reminded him of Apps in style. And ability. A natural from the skates up.
The craggy-faced veteran with the shrewd eyes and the bottle nose that was redder than ever in the cold air. yanked at the brim of his felt hat and hunched closer to the rail.
He watched Miller coming down, watched the smooth, long-legged stride that ate up the ice.
He watched Miller shift through the defense and ride right in. The puck tipped the top of the net. Miller bored in behind the cage. A swift pass to a wing, who flubbed it. A defenseman capered away with the puck.
Miller streaked out after it. The big kid fairly flew. Skates Kelsey’s eyes bulged as he watched that terrific burst of speed. Bud Miller swooped in, stole the puck off his team mate’s stick. He whirled and came back, stormed right in on the doorstep. Fired as the goalie dived. The puck whizzed high into the rigging.
Kelsey moved around toward the players’ gate, wagging his head admiringly. Yep, the kid was big-league timber all right. He had everything. Size, speed, ability. And color.
The man in the fur coat was blowing a whistle, calling the players off. Sweating, they trooped toward the gate. Kelsey planted himself squarely in front of Bud Miller as the tousle-headed young giant stepped off the ice.
"I came a long way to see you, kid,” he grunted, and fished the contract out of his pocket. “Write your John Henry on that piece of paper and then I’ll wish you a happy birthday.”
"Skates Kelsey!” whooped Bud, and whipped off his glove. “Where in the world did you come from? Hi, fellows—Mr. Harbottle—you’ve heard of Skates Kelsey, haven’t you?”
There was a good deal of excitement. The players crowded around. Some of them cheered. There were handshakings and introductions. Kelsey met Mike Harbottle, the fur-coated man, manager of the Prairie Dog Marvels, who uttered a wail of anguish.
"You’re not going to steal my best player ! Not today?” he yowled.
"Sorry,” grunted Kelsey. "Come on, lad.” He thrust a fountain pen into Bud’s hand. "Get your name on that dotted line.”
But then, to his horror. Bud stammered, “Why—I’m sorry, Mr. Kelsey, but-
“You haven’t signed with another team?” barked Kelsey, feeling as if he had been kicked in the stomach.
“Oh, no. But it’s my uncle. You see, I’m only twenty, Mr. Kelsey.”
"I know that. Didn’t have any right to sign you when you were inside the junior age limit. But that’s out now. We can talk business.”
"But my uncle is my guardian. He says I can’t sign any contracts without his okay until I’m twenty-one.”
"Well, then, let’s go see your uncle right away. Don’t you think he’ll let you sign? That’s a good contract, boy. Read it over. You’ll make more money in a month than you probably make here all year.”
“Whatever you do,” broke in Mike Harbottle, “don’t take this boy away from here tonight, Mr. Kelsey. We’ve got a game on. It’s important. Biggest game of the season. If we beat the Mustangs tonight we cinch the league. I’ve gotta have Bud here, Mr. Kelsey.”
“My orders are to have him on the night train.”
Groans from the players. Mr. Harbottle swore and said nobody could do that to him. Bud looked troubled.
"Gosh, I don’t see how I could manage it by tonight—”
Kelsey figured it was time to be tough. After all, a contract with the Chiefs wasn’t something to be sneezed at.
"Sorry, kid. Them’s orders. And if your uncle won’t let you sign this, he’s throwing away the biggest opportunity that will ever come your way. Because I won’t be back.”
"Boy!” breathed one of the players. “Just put one of those papers in front of me and see how quick I’d sign, uncle or no uncle.”
“Wait until I get dressed,” said Bud. "We’ll go up to the store.”
MIKE HARBOTTLE, who turned out to be the local bank manager, went up with them. He was a solid, red-faced citizen who admitted readily enough that Bud was miles out of his class playing hockey for a town like Prairie Dog. But he moaned pitifully every time he thought of having to face the Mustangs in the game of the season without his star centre.
"But you’re gonna have trouble with Bud’s uncle,” he confided to Kelsey. "He owns the general store, he’s tighter than the paper on the wall, and he’ll have to pay out good money to hire a clerk if Bud leaves him.”
Gideon McCrabb was a short, stoutish, elderly man with a pursy little mouth and secretive eyes that peeped out over steel-rimmed spectacles. Kelsey approached him breezily, explained the situation and said: "Now I know you’re the last man who would want to stand in the way of Bud’s success. Mr. McCrabb. So if you’ll just give him authority to sign this contract—”
Mr. McCrabb grunted. “Guess you and me can settle this all right,” he said. "Come in the back office.”
He closed the door carefully behind him, sat down at an old roll-top desk and read the contract very carefully. Then he cleared his throat.
“Make it kinda awkward if I said Bud couldn’t sign, huh?”
“Well—you’re his legal guardian, of course. I didn’t know that until a few minutes ago. But I don t think you re the type of man who would do a trick like that, Mr. McCrabb.”
Mr. McCrabb rubbed his chin reflectively.
“What’s in it for me?”
Skates Kelsey had al1 the sensations of a peaceful citizen who runs into a holdup in broad daylight.
“Why, Mr. McCrabb. After all, this is a mere matter of business that concerns our hockey club and your nephew. Why should there be anything in it for you?”
“I raised that boy. I’m going to miss him here in the store. You fellows will make lots of money out of him. I’m entitled to a little something,” said Gideon McCrabb in his dry cracked voice. He rubbed thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Seems to me five hundred dollars wmld be about right. In cash.”
Kelsey felt ill.
“But Mr. McCrabb, I haven’t got five hundred dollars.” “The Chiefs have.”
“But Mr. Harron wouldn’t pay it. He wouldn’t think of it. He’d scream like a wildcat at the very idea.”
“Too bad,” said McCrabb.
“You mean you’ll make the boy stay out of hockey for a whole year, sacrifice the salary this contract calls for, if we don’t pay you five hundred dollars?”
“He won’t have to stay out for a year. There’s other teams,” McCrabb observed. “Mebbe they ain’t so tight.” Kelsey argued. He pleaded. But Gideon McCrabb’s rrind ran on one track, staked out with signs marked $500. “Five hundred or the boy don’t sign!”
Kelsey groaned. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Don’t think too long. The price is liable to go up,” said the businesslike Mr. McCrabb.
“You don’t belong in Prairie Dog,” said Kelsey bitterly. “You would do well in W’all Street.”
BUD MILLER felt badly when Kelsey reported the result of the interview. The big fellow’s heart was set oa playing pro hockey. But Mike Harbottle wasn’t surprised.
“I figured you would run into something like that,” he said when he left the store with Kelsey.
“Is there a good lawyer in this town? I’ll see if that smug little tightwad can get away with this!” stormed Kelsey. “Calm down. You don’t need a lawyer. You need me.” >
“I’m a banker,” said Mr. Harbottle significantly.
Kelsey brightened up. “Aha ! You can put the old squeeze on friend McCrabb?”
“I can go to McCrabb and tell him it would please me a lot if he will let Bud sign a pro contract. And McCrabb will say ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
“Then what are we waiting for? Holy smoke, man, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Kelsey wheeled, grabbing the banker by the arm. “Come on back and tell him oil.”
Harbottle shook his head.
“And have you hustle the kid out of here on tonight’s train? Nothing doing, Mr. Kelsey.
That team of mine can cinch the league title for this season by winning tonight’s game, even if they lose every other game on the schedule. But they can’t do it without Bud.”
“After we lick the Mustangs tonight I’ll talk to McCrabb.”
Kelsey gulped. He remembered Ben Harron's solemn edict: “Be on that train with that rookie and a signed contract tonight or you’re through.”
“You win,” he said dully. “Go and talk to McCrabb now, and let me get that contract signed. I’ve got reasons. I’ll promise not to take him out of here until tomorrow.” “I’m a banker,” Mr. Harbottle reminded him. “I don’t take chances. After we lick the Mustangs you can take the kid to Siberia for all I care. But until then, Mr. Kelsey, I’m going to take doggone good care that he stays right here in Prairie Dog.”
And with that the cautious Mr. Harbottle waved good-by and headed into his bank at the corner of Main and Wheat Street. Kelsey stood on the corner talking to himself. Finally he trudged back to the hotel. There he went into the phone booth and called Gideon McCrabb.
“Kelsey speaking, Mr. McCrabb. I’ve been thinking that matter over. I guess we’ll be able to do business.” “Thought you’d be sensible about it,” said McCrabb. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I’ve got to get in touch with my chief. But in the meantime, Mr. McCrabb. if
anyone else should try to sign up Bud, don’t forget I spoke to you first.”
“Did you?” said Mr. McCrabb and hung up. Kelsey thought he detected a dry chuckle before the receiver clicked in his ear. He emerged from the booth mumbling wrathfully. And blundered right into Blackjack Snaith, just emerging from the dining room.
Blackjack Snaith had been very much in Kelsey’s mind. In fact it had been the shadow of that wily serpent in the grass that had ruined his whole morning. It was solely the danger that Snaith might deal with Gideon McCrabb and meet that live-hundred-dollar holdup, that had caused him to phone McCrabb. Just a little bit of insurance.
“Well, well, well!” barked Blackjack Snaith, his bony features contorting with an expression of utterly false astonishment and delight. “Skates Kelsey, of all people! Last man in the world I ever expected to see!” He grabbed Kelsey’s hand, pu mix'd it heartily. “Why, you old son-of-a-gun !”
“H’ya, Blackjack !” grunted Kelsey.
“You couldn’t have popp'd up at a better time! No, sir, you couldn’t have picked a better time. I’m a little short of dough, Skates, and you owe me ten. Dig!” commanded Blackjack Snaith, keeping a tight grip on Kelsey’s hand as if afraid he might get away.
“Aw now listen, Blackjack, have a heart,” pleaded Kelsey feebly. “I’m kinda short myself just now. If you’ll let it ride a few days—”
“Dig!” said Mr. Snaith in a voice that sounded like snapping icicles. But he kept right on smiling. “I’ve waited since April. Dig, Skates!”
Kelsey dug, moaning inwardly. Reluctantly he parted with the ten-dollar bill that comprised the major part of his working capital. A nice new ten it was, too, exceedingly crisp in spite of the fact that it had crossed the table into Kelsey’s pocket in the poker game. Blackjack Snaith accepted the ten without gratitude, held it up to the light, thumbed it swiftly and tucked it carefully away in his wallet.
“Well !” he said. “And what brings you to Prairie Dog?” And then Mr. Snaith backed away a little. His angular, longnosed face was shadowed with brooding suspicion.
“I get it,” he said slowly. “I get it. I might have known. You didn’t land in this dump by accident. No more than I did. Yeah, I might have known.”
Then he leaned forward and waggled a long lean finger under Kelsey’s nose.
“Lay off him, Skates. You can’t sign that goalie. I saw him first. He’s on our list”
Goalie? Kelsey blinked.
‘Trying to look innocent, hah?” went on Snaith. “That Mustang team playing here tonight. With the smartest amateur goalie I’ve lamped in ages. And you show up.”
SKATES KELSEY felt as if a great burden had been taken off his shoulders. He breathed freely again. His mind worked rapidly.
“How was I to know you’re interested in that goalie?” he said innocently.
"Don’t kid me, Kelsey. I wasn’t bom yesterday,” said Blackjack Snaith. “Thought you’d slip one over, huh? You wouldn’t go look at that goalie in his own home town, would you? Oh, no. You’re too smart for that. Somebody might get wise. You find out where the team is playing and come here to wait for them.” “It’s a free country.”
“Yeah, but not open season oi goalies. That one is tied up. I got him on my list, see. So lay off.”
“I promise nothing,” said Kelsey. “If I’m sent out to bag a goalie and he looks good enough, I bring him in. If he turns out to be no good, I leave him for you.” “Hah!” sneered Blackjack Snaith.
“Hoh !” snorted Kelsey. They glared at each other with great distaste for a moment and then moved off in opposite directions. Kelsey was halfway into the tavern and toying with the thought of a large scuttle of beer before he remembered he was on the wagon. He sighed dismally and walked out again, wondering if the Mustangs really had a goalie hot enough to interest Blackjack Snaith.
It wasn’t likely. He and Blackjack had been bluffing each other and each knew it. Mr. Snaith was on the trail of Bud Miller, and Kelsey hoped he didn’t want him badly enough to plank down five hundred dollars on the counterof Gideon McCrabb’s store.
But the loss of that ten-spot was serious. Kelsey groaned when he thought of it. He sat down in one of the big leather chairs in the rotunda and did some figuring on the back of an envelope:
Cash on hand................$2.90
Room (One night)............ 2.50
Against this he wrote:
Room (Extra night)...........$2.50
Meals (Today—if I eat)........1.50
Meals (Tomorrow—if I live so
Meals on train for me and Bud
(If Bud has no money). 3.50
Pullman berth (Just for Bud
—I’ll sit up)............. 2.75
Tips........................ 0 00
“Ow!” moaned Kelsey.
He surveyed the financial statement with a gloomy frown.
Then he thought of Mike Harbottle. He became cheerful again. Mr. Harbottle was a banker. And didn’t banks have money? Scads of it.
DOWN in the back room of Gideon McCrabb’s store Mr. Blackjack Snaith was talking business. In McCrabb, the shrewd Snaith had recognized a kindred soul. That sort of knowledge was very useful, for it told Snaith to waste no time in bickering and bargaining. You couldn’t trim a cagey old codger like Gideon McCrabb in that manner. You had to use finesse.
“Five hundred dollars, eh !” said Snaith amiably. He didn’t look shocked. He pronounced the sum without a tremor of his voice. “Five hundred! Well, Mr. McCrabb, I can see your point. After all, you have invested a lot of money in raising this boy and educating him, and you’re entitled to a reasonable return.”
“Just what I told that other feller this morning,” said Mr. McCrabb. “But he couldn’t see it.”
“Five hundred. Well now, it may take an hour or so to raise that money—I don’t happen to carry that much around with me all the time, heh-heh!” chuckled Snaith. “But I think we can do business.” He reached in his pocket and fished out a bill. A ten. The same ten he had just wrung from the limp wallet of Skates Kelsey. “Suppose I give you ten dollars to bind the bargain. As a sort of option, let’s say.”
Gideon McCrabb didn’t exactly snatch at the bill. But it was out of Snaith’s lank hand and in McCrabb’s grubby fingers in the twinkling of an eye. An eagle pouncing upon a rabbit could have taken valuable lessons from watching Mr. McCrabb pounce on a ten-dollar bill. And an eagle discovering that the rabbit was a mere stuffed decoy, could not have learned his mistake quicker than Mr. McCrabb learned that this particular ten was not what it seemed. Long years behind the till had given Mr. McCrabb a sensitive ear where a lead quarter was concerned, and highly sensitive fingers in the matter of handling paper money.
“Aha!” said McCrabb, recoiling as if the bill had bitten him.
“What’s the matter?”
“This ten.” said Gideon McCrabb, regarding Snaith severely.
“What’s the matter with that ten?”
“It’s no good.” Mr. McCrabb picked up the distasteful object gingerly and felt it between thumb and forefinger. Then he held it up to his nose and sniffed. That, apparently, settled it. Gideon McCrabb grimaced as if a skunk had just scuttled across his desk. “Can’t fool me, mister! It’s a fake!”
“Holy smoke!” exploded Snaith, honestly grieved and astonished. He could scarcely believe that a member of the scouting fraternity could be guilty of such appalling skulduggery. Mr. Snaith knew that Skates Kelsey, like Mr. Snaith himself, would stop at very little in the best interests of his hockey team. But they drew the line at actual crime. You could steal a hockey player with a clear conscience—but not a nickel !
“Well, the son-of-a-gun!” he breathed. In his heart he was pretty sure Skates Kelsey hadn’t passed that bad ten intentionally and with malice aforethought. But nevertheless Mr. Snaith was full of wrath. He rose precipitately from his chair. “That ten was just passed on nie by a guy I know. Not ten minutes ago !” he exclaimed. “Boy, just wait—just wait until I catch up with him. I’ll make him eat it. Yes, sir, I ’ll make him eat it.” Murmuring righteously, Blackjack Snaith departed in great haste. It wasn’t until after the store door slammed that Gideon McCrabb realized that they had both forgotten to settle that little matter of the down payment on that five hundred dollars.
Halfway back to the hotel Mr. Snaith cooled down a little. His first impulse to force Mr. Kelsey to dine on that spurious ten-spot faded away.
“Take it easy. Take it easy,” he told himself. “This may come in useful.”
It occurred to him that perhaps Mr. Kelsey might want to bet on that night’s game. “If I bet a bad ten and lose my bet, what do I lose but a bad ten?” mused Snaith. “But if I win my bet I win a good ten, and then make him buy back the bad ten anyway later on. Any way you look at it. I can’t lose.”
Some people might have found it a little complicated, but Blackjack Snaith thought it had all the beautiful clarity of a problem in elementary geometry.
“Yes, sir,” said Blackjack Snaith. smiling again. “I’ll just lie low and wait.”
SKATES KELSEY paid a couple more visits to Gideon McCrabb’s store that day, partly in the vain hope that he might soften McCrabb’s stony heart, partly to see if Blackjack Snaith was hanging around. Both visits were fruitless. Gideon McCrabb still had his mind grimly set on five hundred dollars. And Snaith wasn’t in sight.
At about five o’clock in the afternoon Prairie Dog began to waken up. Cars were coming in over the prairie roads. The Great Western Hotel became noisy. The afternoon train unloaded the Mustang hockey team and a couple of hundred wildly uproarious supporters. In the lobby of the hotel they brandished fistfuls of folding money and loudly predicted that the Mustangs would whip the tar out of any hockey team Prairie Dog could produce.
Kelsey buttonholed one of the Mustang fans. “You fellows got a good goalie?” The man stared at him. “Have we got a good goalie! Listen, mister, we got the best goalie in Canada. Absoposolutely the quickest, smartest, fastest goalie in amateur hockey. He’ll shut ’em out. You watch. These birds won’t even come dose. He’ll shut ’em out. They won’t even score on him. Wanna bet?”
Kelsey was sorely tempted. Anyone who bet on shutouts needed a lesson. But he fought it down.
“I never bet, brother,” he said virtuously.
“You’re wise, not taking that bet. Chub Hannigan won’t let ’em get a goal. He’ll shut ’em out. You wait and see,” chanted the fan. “Best doggone goalie anywhere
Kelsey began to wonder. Maybe Snaith hadn’t been bluffing after all.
There was one way to find out. Across the lobby he saw Blackjack Snaith in earnest conversation with a tubby, hamhanded youth wearing the Mustang colors on his coat. Kelsey went over. Snaith held up a warning hand.
“Go away! Lay off !” he cried. “This is my goalie. You can’t even talk to him. Chub,” he advised the ham-handed youth, “if that guy tries to talk to you, don’t listen. He’s Skates Kelsey, scout for the Chiefs.”
“I won’t bite you,” Kelsey assured the goalie. “They tell me you’re pretty good.”
Chub Hannigan seemed overwhelmed by all this attention. “I do my best,” he mumbled.
“He’s just so good the Mustangs will win in a walk,” crowed Snaith. “I’ll bet money on it. Betcha ten dollars they win by two goals. Skates.”
Kelsey hesitated. But this was a challenge from the enemy. “Seeing it’s you,” replied Kelsey, “I’ll take you up. Blackjack. Gentlemen’s bet.”
He was convinced now that Snaith really was sold on the Mustang goalie. And with Bud Miller sharpshooting for Prairie Dog that ten-dollar bet was as good as in Kelsey’s pocket already. It wasn’t really gambling. Kelsey had long since learned that betting on hockey is a disastrous and risky pastime, but this was different. Prairie Dog couldn’t lose not with Bud Miller playing. He would never be able to look himself in the eye again if he refused to take up Blackjack Snaith on a cinch bet like that. And the ten-spot would come in handy. Very hardy.
“It’s a bet. Kelsey,” snapped Blackjack Snaith, showing his teeth in a grin. “And are you going to kick yourself!”
Prairie Dog’s rink was jammed to the roof that night for the epic clash between the Marvels and the Mustangs. The game of the year. It would cinch the league for Prairie Dog—if they won it. But the Mustangs figured on staying in there.
“What do you think?” Kelsey asked Mite Harbottle just before the epic battle got under way. “Any chance of these Mustangs winning?”
“Against Bud Miller?” said Plarbottlc scornfully. “Don’t be foolish.”
Kelsey felt relieved. Everything was going to be lovely. Prairie Dog would win the game, he would collect ten bucks from Blackjack Snaith, the banker would put the squeeze on Gideon McCrabb, and Bud would be signed to a Chief contract, all before midnight.
He felt still better when he watched Bud at centre when the game got rolling. The big fellow played as if he had put on some professional polish already. Right off the ban he went wheeling in on the Mustang defense. Fast, powerful, carrying that puck like a master. He split the defense, stormed in, whipped the puck past Chub Hamigan with one swift, terrific snap of hi? wrists.
It took exactly twelve seconds for that first goal.
Prairie Dog went wild. The Mustang fans, scarcely settled in their seats, looked as if they had been severely kicked in the teeth.
Skates Kelsey took a long deep breath of satisfaction, gave the brim of his hat a tug of contentment and settled back, beaming.
This was going to be good. Blackjack Snaith was going to see a future Chief star bowing out of amateur hockey. And Blackjack was going to be nicked ten big iron men for the privilege.
“Boy!” snickered Kelsey.
After that first Bud Miller explosion that set the Mustangs right back on their heels, the game settled down. Take Miller off the Prairie Dog team and the Mustangs might have had the best of it. But the big fellow made all the difference.
At the ten-minute mark Bud Miller whacked in another goal. Skates Kelsey smiled happily. The Mustangs got one a little later, but Bud Miller got it right back again. No one, watching that blackthatched tornado as he swept down the ice and whipped the puck home, could say he wasn’t big-league material.
Kelsey grinned as he thought of how sick Blackjack Snaith must be feeling. Three goals against the great Chub Ilannigan! Heh-heh !
At the end of the first period the total had gone up.
THE SCORE was 5-2 for Prairie Dog when Skates Kelsey edged his way into the dressing room and sat down beside Bud.
“Nice going, son. I’m hoping to see you show some of that stuff in a Chief uniform pretty soon.”
“Gosh! There’s nothing I’d like better. Did you talk to my uncle again, Mr. Kelsey?”
“Well —no. After the game. But I think everything is going to be all right, lad. Yes,” beamed Kelsey, “I think everything is going to be all right.”
Mike Harbottle came over.
“We’re gonna be sorry to lose you. Bud. I guess this is your last game for good old Prairie Dog.
“Did you talk to McCrabb?” blurted Kelsey eagerly.
Harbottle shook his head. “Not yet. But it won’t take long. Half an hour after we win this game you’ll have bought yourself a hockey player. Mr. Kelsey.” “Gosh!” grinned Bud Miller.
Kelsey turned to him. “Fellow named Snaith been talking to you today?”
“Never heard of him. Who is he? What would he want to talk to me about?”
“That’s just fine,” said Skates Kelsey, feeling better than ever. The world was a swell place after all. What pleased him as much as anything was the prospect of the ten dollars he was going to take from his bitter enemy Blackjack Snaith.
The visiting firemen waded into the second period with the air of a team that knows it is licked but retains faith in j miracles. The faith was justified. They got j two goals in quick order.
Kelsey looked a little worried. The j score was 5-4 now. He took off his hat and mopped his forehead. And then Bud Miller ; came out from the bench and took hold.
He didn’t get rolling for a minute or so. And the Mustangs were ganging. Then Big Bud swooped into a wild melee behind the Prairie Dog net, side-stepped a Mustang forward, snapped up the puck and broke like lightning.
Away he flashed. The whole pack streamed after him.
The Mustang forwards were left flatfooted. A lone defenseman crouched nervously out in front of the Mustang goalie as big Bud stormed down the ice.
He wheeled in, shifted without a break in his stride. The defenseman swung wildly and went down. Bud swooped on the net, waited until the goalie made his move. Then he pulled the trigger and fired the puck into the cage. He swerved past the goal post.
What happened then wasn’t quite clear. Maybe a flashing skate caught in the net webbing. Perhaps there was a stray bit of rubbish on the ice. At any rate, swooping past the net, he suddenly pitched wildly forward as if he had tripped over an invisible wire.
Pitched forward, dived headlong, flinging up arms and stick to protect himself. Dived headlong into the back boards with a sickening smash.
Miller’s body crumpled up and lay sprawled on the ice. He lay limp and huddled like an empty sack.
Mike Harbottle cleared the fence at one bound and lit on the ice running. The goalies left their nets. The players swooped swiftly up to that motionless form on the ice. For Miller was hurt. Everyone knew that. It was no ordinary tumble into the boards.
“He mighta broken his neck!” whispered Skates Kelsey. For he knew just how hard a man can hit when he trips going at full tilt on the steel blades. And he knew Bud Miller hadn’t had a chance to break the terrific impact.
They carried the big youngster to the dressing room. Kelsey caught Mike Harbottle’s eye, and the manager shook his head gravely. He looked worried. “Bad!” muttered Harbottle briefly. A doctor came hustling down one of the aisles. The town cop struggled to hold the crowd back.
KELSEY hung around outside the dressing-room door. He was so deeply concerned over Bud Miller’s possible injuries that it was quite a while before it occurred to him that this might be a bad break for Skates Kelsey, too.
“Be on the train with that rookie and a signed contract tonight or you’re through.” Well, he wasn’t on the train with either Bud Miller or the contract. And it looked as if he mightn’t be on the train tomorrow night either.
After a while Mike Harbottle and the doctor came out of the dressing room.
“Concussion!” the doctor was saying. “Bring him out to my car and I’ll take him up to the hospital.”
Skates Kelsey felt as if the bottom had dropped out of the world After they carried Bud Miller out he went back to his seat, gloomy and depressed. Down on the ice the players were wheeling back and forth, trying to keep warmed up. For the game, like the show, must go on.
The play got under way again, the score, with Miller’s goal, 6-4. But beneath a cloud.
The Mustangs, however, had no idea of letting sympathy stand in the way of a golden opportunity. They struck, and struck hard.
By the end of the period they had pulled up within a goal of the Prairie Dog squad. And Kelsey was breathing hard. Bad enough to leave Prairie Dog without Bud Miller; but if he lost that ten-dollar bet he mightn’t be able to leave at all.
He met Mike Harbottle in the corridor between periods. The manager looked glum.
“Any word from the hospital?”
Harbottle shook his head.
Kelsey went back to his seat dejected. He was a good deal more dejected when the third period began and the Mustangs promptly tied the score.
Skates Kelsey could sit in a poker game with three kings and see them lose to aces without batting an eyelash. But for once his iron control left him. He yelped with anguish. Great beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.
He suffered agonies in that third period and the ten minutes overtime that followed. But there was no more scoring. The game ended in a tie.
Skates Kelsey was weak at the knees and limp as a rag doll when the gong ended it.
He felt better when he ran into Blackjack Snaith in the crowded dressing-room corridor. Snaith looked as if he had just gulped a couple of swigs of straight lemon juice.
“Heh!” gloated Kelsey. “That prize goalie of yours must have had an offnight, Blackjack.”
“All right,” growled Snaith. “I travel four hundred miles to watch the lug and he turns out to be a washout. Don’t rub it in. You’ve been hooked the same way more than once.”
“Let me see,” Kelsey snickered. “The Mustangs were to win by two goals, weren’t they? For a little matter of ten bucks. Ten nice round iron men, Blackjack. Dig, brother. Dig!”
Blackjack Snaith fished out the ten. “There,” he snapped. “The same ten you gave me this morning. Spend it on carbolic acid !”
“To mix with your breakfast coffee, Blackjack? I’ll be glad to,” replied Kelsey in great good humor. Blackjack Snaith forked over a crisp new bill and strode away like a man who would like to kick himself but can’t manage it. Beaming happily, Kelsey pocketed the bill.
MIKE HARBOTTLE told him that the hospital had just phoned to say Bud Miller was conscious again.
“Must have a head like iron,” grunted the banker. “But he’s a sick boy, no foolin’. They’re not sure how sick just yet. He’ll be laid up for a week anyhow, maybe longer.”
All the way back to the hotel Kelsey tried to figure out just how he would explain all this to Ben Harron. He didn’t have it figured out when he reached the Great Western. So he was thrown into something of a panic when the night clerk beckoned him over to the desk and said: “Will you call long distance, Mr. Kelsey? They’ve been trying to get you all evening.”
“I’m not here. I’ve gone away!” yelped Kelsey.
“But I told her you hadn’t checked out. I said you’d be in after the game.” And just then the phone jangled loudly. The clerk answered it. “Mr. Kelsey? Why—ah —well—”
“All right. All right,” Kelsey groaned. “Gimme.” He reached for the phone. And a moment later the withering voice of Ben Harron began scorching his eardrums.
“So! You’re still in Prairie Dog. huh? That’s all I wanted to know! That’s absolutely all I wanted to know, Kelsey.” “Now wait a minute, Ben —”
“Don’t wait-a-minute me, you lug ! Did
you think I was kidding when I talked to you this morning? Didn’t I tell you to be on the train with that rookie tonight or else? Didn’t I?”
“Yes, Ben, you did. But here’s what happened—”
“What happened was that you didn’t get on that train like I told you. And what happens now,” bellowed the outraged Harron, “is that I’m tyin’ the can to you. I keep my promises, Kelsey. You're through. Fired, see!”
“But Ben, listen to me a minute. I had to stay because the kid had to play in a hockey game tonight. He wouldn’t sign until after the game, Ben. I couldn’t go away and leave him, could I?”
“Is he signed now?”
“Ben, it’s a long story—”
“What?” yelled Harron. “You haven’t signed him yet? And why not? You stick around to let him play a hockey game, you say. You disobey orders. Well, if the game is over why haven’t you signed him?” Kelsey racked his brains for a good answer to that one. But Harron had caught him off balance. Harron didn’t even wait.
“Listen, you no-good tramp,” he said softly, “I’ll give you one chance. One more chance, Kelsey. Just one. Will you have that rookie on the next train out of there?” Kelsey gulped. Temptation was strong. “Ben,” he said, ' I’ll be honest with you.
I can’t promise.”
“Can’t promise? And why not?”
“The kid is in the hospital.”
Then Kelsey took the receiver away from his ear. Harron shrieked like a fire siren.
“Don’t tell me you let him play in a hockey game tonight and he got hurt!” screamed the head man of the Chiefs. “Why that boy was priceless. Every hair on his head was worth hundreds of dollars. Every bone in his body was practically solid gold.” To the anguished Harron. young Bud Miller had suddenly become the most priceless piece of hockey bric-abrac in all history. ' Kelsey if ever I lay my hands on you I’ll tear you limb from limb. How bad is he hurt?”
“They don’t know yet, boss. He’s conscious now, but it’ll be a week anyhow—”
“You’re fired. Kelsey! ' howled Harron. “And this time I mean it. Right now, you’re fired. Don’t come back. Don’t ever come near me again.”
The distant receiver banged smartly in Kelsey’s ear. He sighed ruefully. Then he cast a guilty glance at the clerk and at Mr. Ab Hodge, the hotel proprietor, who had just come in. Ben Harron’s concluding remarks could have been heard halfway to the rink.
“Good old Ben '' said Kelsey feebly. “He must have his little joke.”
Ab Hodge, however, looked doubtful. Even suspicious. Ben Harron hadn’t sounded like a man who was just kidding.
Mr. Hodge was one of those hotelmen— all too often found in this hard world—who are apt to be wary of guests without visible means of support.
“Will you be staying over for the game tomorrow night?” he enquired.
“Tonight’s game don’t count, seeing it was a tie. And it’s a long trip for the Mustangs, so they figure to stay over and play again to get it settled. Ought to be a right lively scrap, Mr. Kelsey.”
“Without Bud Miller it doesn’t interest me,” Kelsey answered glumly.
“If it’s convenient, Mr. Kelsey, maybe you wouldn’t mind letting me have a little something on your bill. To date,” said Ab Hodge.
Kelsey sighed. I f you began stalling with hotel managers you were done for. He dug. He fislied out the crisp new bill with which Snaith had settled his bet.
“Why certainly, Mr. Hodge,” he said with dignity.
Ab Hodge looked relieved, but perhaps a little disappointed, as he worked the cash register. To be Concluded