FICTION

Sailer's Son

EDWIN RUTT July 15 1949
FICTION

Sailer's Son

EDWIN RUTT July 15 1949

Sailer's Son

EDWIN RUTT

THE SAILER’S SON, with the colored boy we call Boll Weevil low over his neck, came in like a tawny flame. As they flashed by Colonel Gresham clicked the stop watch. Requardt, the trainer, sucked a short pipe impassively, but a shadowy smile curved his mouth corners. As for Kathy, she was all excitement, the way Kathy gets whenever she hears hoof beats.

“Father!” She yanked the Colonel’s sleeve. He wasn’t consulting the watch fast enough for her.

The Colonel looked down. You’ve got to be big to look down on Kathy, five-eight in nylons. But the Colonel is a giant. He likes to kid his daughter.

“All in good time, girl. But I’ve an idea”—he grinned “that it is good time. We’ll see presently.” That cost him an effort. Underneath he was as excited as Kathy.

Kathy punched his shoulder. “Oh . . .’’she said. Boll Weevil was bringing the Sailer’s Son back. The horse came curvetting a little, tossing his magnificent head. Boll Weevil pulled him up and he stood with steely legs quivering and dark sweat patches staining his sleek flanks. He was a honey, high and strong, and ginger-gold all over save for a snip on his left nostril. 'The exercise boy slid down like a rubbery black monkey.

Kathy had reached her limit. “Oh, Father, don’t In; so dramatic!” She literally tore the watch away from him.

Requardt’s hands were going over flu* horse. I watched them, fascinated. There was magic in those hands. '1’hey could probe unerringly for trouble spots. But theyWound none this morning. Requardt smacked a sweat-dappled rump complacent ly.

Kathy had been staring at the watch. “Jim, come here! It it doesn’t seem possible.”

1 step[>ed over. “W-why,” l blurted, “that’s practically record going.”

The Colonel peered over my shoulder. “And with nothing but this little fellow up!”

Boll Weevil's mouth opened. “Cunnel,” stated Boll Weevil, “dat am a hoss.”

Kathy ran to the colt; patted his soft muzzle. “Boy, are you something! Polaris please copy, eh, fellow?”

Therewith she had mentioned the only horse figuring a chance of beating the Sailer’s Son in the Tamplyn Stakes and marring his so-far-perfect first season. He’d gone to the post seven times and won all starts. But never by much. Twice, indeed, he’d come from behind to nip the leader. It was close shaving and we couldn’t understand it. On prerace form the Sailer’s Son was easily the pick of those fields. He should have romped. But he hadn’t.

Yet no one criticized Flickinger’s riding. Flick could boot ’em home with the best. And he had l)ooted the Sailer’s Son home. But with not enough to spare to satisfy Colonel Gresham and Requardt. Moreover, the combination had never met such as Polaris.

Polaris was a big black from the Chisw ick-Hart

Stables. He was docile at the post, not a nervous catfooted stepper like the Sailer’s Son and all of the Sailer’s line; but once the gate went up he turned into ebony lightning. The Sailer’s Son would have to show class to take him. But after this morning . . .

“I’m not surprised, Colonel.” Requardt spoke around his pipestem. “He’s got it in him.”

The Colonel didn’t reply. I wondered if he was thinking as I was—that perhaps the Sailer’s Son could look really good only on the exercise track; that he might be like a fighter who sparkles in training, but leaves his fight in the dressing room.

“In my opinion,” added Requardt, “he’s as good as his sire. Right now.”

INVOLUNTARILY we all looked past the stables to the sweeping meadow. There, under the huge oak, quiet and with the dignity of a monarch accustomed to his station, stood the Sailer, the greatest horse of his time.

I must explain the spelling, S-A-I-L-E-R. It means simply a thing that sails, not to be confused with uniformed gentlemen who walk with a rolling gait.

For, practically from a foal, the chestnut destined to burn track for two seasons had a flowing almost oiled motion. He moved like something from space. Under full steam he seemed almost to be in space. Because his flying hoofs gave the impression of skimming the ground.

In his day there was nothing to touch him. Eighteen consecutive times, wearing the big star on his forehead like an emblem of victory, he came down the stretch, a chest nut-colored ghost. The nineteenth but no one alluded to that bitter event around Colonel Gresham’s stable.

Nor had I l)een thinking about it on this sundrenched August morning. The memory merely flashed back at sight of the Sailer, regal beneath his oak. And I thought—-and maybe it was a case of think of the devil.

Colonel Gresham was lighting his pipe. But. suddenly his head came up. I heard the swift intake of his breath.

rJ'HE LITTLE MAN was shabbily dressed and

hatless. He had thinning sandy hair threaded with grey skeins and a face the color of a worn saddle. It was a hard face, lined and seamed, as if life had etched it deeply with some^bitter tool. The eyes were light grey, like chips of flint. He had come up unnoticed and now those flinty eyes appraised the golden length of the Sailer’s Son, quiet at last with Requardt holding his bridle.

I stared. I couldn’t place the fellow. But the Colonel’s eyes bulged as at some monstrous spectacle. “Cavan!” Veins stood out on the Colonel’s sunburned neck.

Then I knew him. Paddy Cavan, internationally infamous for pulling the Sailer, in his nineteenth and final start.

Cavan’s expression was cocky. But, somehow, it seemed a cockiness hastily assumed, to get him over an awkward moment. He said glibly, “Good morning. Colonel. And hovv’d do, Miss Kathy? You’ve grown, as would be natural in five years, and so has Jim Baxter there. But you ain’t changed, Bert Requardt. I don’t suppose you’re talking to me, Bert?”

Kathy’s eyes were blue ice. Requardt said, lips scarcely moving: “I don’t talk to crooks.”

Boll Weevil stood between the Colonel and

Cavan. A huge hand swept Boll Weevil aside* “Get out of here, Cavan!” The Colonel’s voice was frighteningly quiet.

Cavan took a backward step. “Listen, Colonel, I come here today, on the level. I”—visibly the cockiness vanished—“I had to come.”

Colonel Gresham snorted. “You were never on the level in your life.”

“Father!” Kathy’s breath caught.

He ignored her. “What’s more, the world knows it. You let a great horse down, you let your stable down, you let me down.”

“IVe paid for it, Colonel,” Cavan said soberly.

Well, maybe he had. For what he’d done to the Sailer, the stewards had set Cavan down—for life.

“Paid for it,” Cavan repeated. “I’ve not had a decent job since. Here, there, all over.” He shuffled his feet.

“I’m not interested.” The Colonel’s jaw jutted.

“Colonel,” Cavan’s voice dropped, “I don’t expect no sym T don’t expect nothin’. But I’ve got a conscience, though you won’t believe me. And it—it’s never let me alone, since that day.”

“I fail—” began the Colonel.

Cavan interrupted, though not rudely. “No, you couldn’t. But what you said is God’s truth. I let Himself down. And I’ve had a long time to think.” Shadows darkened his strange eyes. “A long time.”

I remembered, then, that Paddy Cavan had usually referred to the Sailer as “Himself.”

The Colonel spoke, snapping it. “Just what do you want, Cavan?”

“Well,” the little man drew a breath, “I picked up something the other day. Never mind where. But it could help. To make Himself’s son here —and it’s a beauty, he is—a dead cert for the

Horsemen are hardheaded. They don’t have much faith in a woman’s intuition — or in an ex-jockey coming back to pay off a debt of honor to an old friend

Tamplyn. And that”—he smiled crookedly — “would square me a bit, may lx*, with with his old man.”

There was a pause. Then: “Who sent you,

Cavan?”

“I guess I had that cornin’. And it’s okay. I said I didn’t expect nothin’. And I don’t, really. 1 just—took a chance.”

He turned away. I saw his eyes, crushed and defeated. Kathy saw them too. She took a stride forward. “Father, why not hear Cavan out?”

The Colonel spun on her. “I’ll hear no more. Get along, Cavan ! And tell whoever sent you that, whatever it was, it didn’t work.”

Cavan shook his head. But suddenly his eyes went to the meadow. “W-why,” he turned back to us and his smile was a rare thing, “it’s Himself down there. The big guy.”

THEN Paddy Cavan was running toward the fence, on short bandy legs. As he ran, he thrust two fingers into his mouth.

I don’t know how to describe that whistle. It rang, sort of—silvery, trilly—on the morning air. There was something mystic, almost unnatural about it. I am not fanciful. But it sent queer

thoughts through my head. Thoughts of swirling dark water, and the rolling red wagons of gypsies, and of things restless and disturbed, that never could be still.

This nonsense lasted only a moment, before I got back to normal. Nuts! We were hardheaded horse people.

The next instant I saw a pretty sight. A great animal wheeling toward the sound that alerted him, tensed, nerves gathered -

Paddy Cavan blew another blast on that strange silvery pipe. And the Sailer started.

He came slowly at first, then like the wind. He ate meadow, as once he had eaten track. And he was sailing at the end, as if the fence were the wire.

We hurried up, all but Boll Weevil to whom Requardt tossed the colt’s bridle. For a second I was afraid the Sailer would try the fence, and he’s no jumper. But he skidded in just short. A long nose poked over, thrustingly, enquiringly.

Paddy Cavan stroked that nose, from blazing star to moist rubbery lips. Paddy Cavan broke into soft Irish. “Shure an’ it’s a darlint, ye are! Agincourt!” He spat brightly in the sunlight. “Agincourt never

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beat ye. ’Twas Patrick Cavan, the saints curse him.”

Agincourt? The gamblers, Ajax Smith and his crowd, had backed Agincourt plenty that day. The gamblers had known just what they were doing. It could have been, if you wanted to give him a break, that Paddy Cavan hadn’t, precisely.

Cavan had gotten above himself, what with the adulation of the racing world and the news hawks writing him up as the greatest of all jockeys. Nor had he a good head for alcohol and, despite the money he coined, a dime in his jeans—ever. He was a soft touch for smooth talkers like Ajax Smith. So the Sailer got away to a phony start, scarcely a start at all. And Agincourt got written into the books as the Sailer’s conqueror. And Paddy Cavan was suspended for life by the stewards.

Life? A long time in anybody’s language.

Colonel Gresham’s fingers closed on Cavan’s shoulder; jerked him away from the Sailer. I thought he was going to shake him like a rat. He didn’t. But he gave Cavan a push that sent him stumbling.

“You’ve got your nerve,” the Colonel roared, “even to touch a horse of mine.”

Kathy ranged up alongside me. “Father’s doing this badly,” she whispered.

Cavan made an odd little movement. “Okay, Colonel. But I was levelin’ today. And I know more about the Sailer than any man livin’. Didn’t I bring Himself in eighteen times runnin’ and him breezin’ every time? And didn’t I get to know him in all them races? You and Requardt can breed horses, Colonel. And train ’em. But until you’ve rode ’em, you’ll never know ’em. Well, I ain’t rode this colt. But I’ve watched him all season. And he’s the old man over again. Looks like him, acts like him. And he don’t like hoofs in front of him, no more than the big guy did. And, take it or leave it, but young Flickinger’s been lettin’ him see a lot too many.”

The Colonel merely stared.

“Also, Colonel, the Chiswick-Hart crowd’s entered three horses for the Tamplyn. Looks like they want to win, don’t it?”

Requardt had had enough. “Go peddle your information elsewhere, Cavan! We’re not buying.”

“I ought to of known,” Cavan’s eyes were bitter. “A guy makes a mistake once. And that’s the end of him.” For the last time he looked pleadingly at the Colonel. “He don’t get another chance, eh, Colonel?”

Colonel Gresham’s teeth clicked, “Not here, Cavan.”

Paddy Cavan shrugged and walked away. J

I WENT off at the same time, having something to do in the stables. When I got back Boll Weevil had taken the Sailer’s Son in. The Colonel and Requardt, pipes glowing, were absorbed in horse talk. Kathy had disappeared.

But when I went to the house for lunch she was stretched in a glider on the lawn. I sat beside her and ruffed up her light bright hair. “Baxter is going to have a beautiful wife,” I said. “Lucky Baxter.”

“I wouldn’t know about Baxter’s wife,” Kathy said. “But lie’s got a mad fiancee right now. Jim, Father treated that man abominably.”

“Cavan?” 1 said. “He’s just a cheap crook.”

She eyed her toes. “Men!” She sniffed it. “No intuition. Father could have listened.”

“For my dough he listened overtime.’’

“Yes, but with a closed mind. He might have learned something. Darn it, Jim, the Sailer’s Son is my horse. Father gave him to me the day he was dropped.”

“Okay,” I said. “But if you’ve any sense in that lovely blond head you’ll keep Paddy Cavan away from him.” Her eyes were troubled. “Maybe. But the little man was trying to—to get something over.”

“Yeah.” I sniffed then. “Something to make Ajax Smith and that gang a hatful of money.”

She looked at me scathingly. “Men!” she repeated. “It’s a—a coalition.”

1 said: “It’s a woman’s world!

They own everything Look at you! You’re even laying claim to the Sailer’s Son.”

“Oh, go fry fish!” said Kathy.

THE NEXT week we shipped to Hunterdon Springs, where the Tamplyn is run. I like that courteous old town with its wide elm-shaded streets and the huge frame hotels reminiscent of the ’90’s. And I figured to wander along those streets in the evenings, with Kathy and no one else.

I’m a dreamer, I am.

The race crowd was there, up for the Tamplyn, and Kathy knew everybody, and everybody wanted some of Kathy’s time.

But we did manage one stroll along the dark old thoroughfares. Only that time we had the benefit of the Colonel’s society. He’d stood us dinner at the Grand Continental, and after it he hung around, even when, rather pointedly, I suggested a walk in the sweetsmelling night.

The Colonel thought that a fine idea. He flexed his biceps, filled his lungs and stepped out. Kathy and 1 trailed along.

Of course we talked horses and the Colonel got wound up. He strode a bit ahead of us, laying down the law. But all at once he stopped dead “Look there!” he exclaimed, pointing. “Birds of a feather.”

Across the street, outlined in the beam of an arc light, a tall dark figure moved. It seemed to skulk, and there was something vaguely sinister about it. At its heels, almost trotting to keep pace with those long slinky strides —Paddy Cavan.

I whistled softly. Ajax Smith, notorious as gambler and race fixer. His presence meant no good for somebody.

“And you,” the Colonel addressed Kathy sharply, “wanted me to listen to Cavan. Well, see for yourself the company he keeps.”

“I know.” Kathy sounded stubborn. “It looks bad. But everybody deserves a break.”

The Colonel humphed. “Don’t worry, Cavan’ll make his own breaks. With plenty of help from a very shady crew.”

I don’t know why the sight of Smith and Cavan made me so uneasy. I’m used to seeing unsavory characters. They’re a dime a dozen at any race meeting. But these two hobnobbing, after Cavan’s visit to us—well, I just didn’t like it.

So when we got back to the hotel I left Kathy with the mob and went out again. I thought I’d do a little checking up.

I SCOURED the town, but Smith and Cavan weren’t anywhere around. I did meet young Flickinger, the Sailer’s jock, however. The meeting left me even more uneasy.

Flickinger’s just a kid and the Lord made little of him. Among other things He forgot to throw in a chin, and instinctively I distrust chinless men. Likewise, Flick seemed a bit uncomfortable at running into me. He was affable, but obviously in a hurry to be on his way. I wondered where that way might lead.

After he’d gone I went over the other riders in my mind. I was considering recommending a change of jockeys, just to play safe. But I discarded the notion. There wasn’t anyone else who could handle the Sailer’s Son like Flickinger. Besides, I was beginning to brand myself as a hysterical old woman. After all, I hadn’t an earthly reason to suspect Flick of skulduggery merely because he breathed the same air as Cavan and Ajax Smith.

The night before the race there was a dance at the Grand Continental. I managed half the first number with Kathy before losing her. Thereafter, as usual, my gal became the belle of the ball and I was superfluous. So 1 did a few duty dances, then went to the bar. Some of the lads were there and I was gone quite a time. When l got back I couldn’t find Kathy.

I didn’t find her for the rest of that party, either. She’d simply evaporated. But. I made only casual enquiries, not washing to appear the possessive fiancé. The enquiries fell flat. No one had seen her leave or knew where she was.

Finally I went up to her room. But her door was locked and my raps went unanswered.

IN CONSEQUENCE I was pacing the hotel veranda long after the festivities ended. At precisely one a.m. Kathy’s blue roadster pulled up. Out stepped Kathy, alone.

“You look like an irate father, Jim,” she said.

“Where have you been?” 1 repfeed. She squinted her sea-blue eyes; wrinkled the charming Gresham nose. “Wouldn’t you like to know, just!” Which was all I got for all my stewing around.

I WOKE next morning to a jangling telephone. Requardt wanted me at the stables immediately, just why he wouldn’t say over the wire, but 1 sensed trouble in his voice.

I got there in nothing flat and found Requardt—and Flickinger. Flick looked like something hot off a mangle.

He was oyster-colored, with green and yellow tinges. He was also unsteady, jittery.

Requardt waved at him in disgust, “This beauty picked last night, of all nights, to get drunk. I called you,” he continued, “to see if we can cover up for him. He’s been a good boy till now and I don’t want to hurt his chances. But if the Colonel—”

He didn’t need to go on. If Colonel Gresham ever found a jockey of his in this condition, on race morning, the Lord help that jockey.

I gazed at the shaking specimen. “One thing’s sure. He can’t ride.” “Cernly can,” Flickinger mumbled. “Pritchard will ride,” Requardt announced, decisively.

“1 don’t think so, Bert.”

We whipped around. Kathy stood there, feet planted firmly, chin just as firm.

“The Sailer’s Son,” said Kathy, “is my horse. Flick’s always ridden him and he’s going to today. I don’t want a thing said about this to Father and I—I’ll take full responsibility.” “You’re crazy—” I began.

“Shut up, Jim! Well, Bert?” Requardt tussled with himself. Natu rally, he wanted Flick to ride. No one else knew the horse half so well. But I knew he doubted Flick’s ability to pull himself together in time, after what must have been a man-sized bender. “We-e-11,” he said, slowly, “you seem—”

“If you mean ‘determined,’ I am.” Kathy’s wide mouth set.

REQUARDT gave in. But he eased his conscience by throwing up his hands. “Okay. It’s your responsibility.’’

Well, Kathy and I went to work on Flickinger. We sent for black coffee; poured it into him. Then I, personally, tossed him into a shower and got him to bed. And, all the while, no explanation out of him. He was either afraid or ashamed to tell me what had happened. But I didn’t press him. I was too busy sobering him.

Sober he was, too, in the paddock, before race time. But still white and drawn under his peaked cap.

“Well,” I said nervously to Kathy, “you wanted it this way.”

“It had to be this way,” Kathy said firmly.

The Sailer’s Son cut up at the post as usual. While Flickinger quieted him, I looked the other starters over. Particularly the Chiswick - Hart Stable’s three entriesBarchester, Henchman and Polaris. Polaris, that rangy black, was our enemy today.

THEY got off to a good start.

Polaris, ir the middle, swarmed into the lead with his stablemate, Barchester, coming fast along the rail. The Sailer’s Son hung on the heels of Polaris, Flickinger naturally hounding the horse we had to beat. The rest of the field bunched behind. They took the first turn in a pinwheel of color.

Around the turn Barchester moved. He had the inside and he grabbed the lead. But Polaris was only a length back. And there was a gap between

those two Chiswick-Hart horses and Flickinger had the Sailer’s Son just off the mouth of the gap. Any second now he might shoot through the opening.

Barchester didn’t worry me. Obviously, he was the pacemaker for Polaris. He’d fold in the back stretch. Then Polaris would make his bid.

It was going to be a two-horse race, all right, the way we’d figured. It was that even now, with the others dropping behind and Barchester only up there temporarily.

I had the glasses tight to my eyes. I saw the Sailer’s Son start for that opening. But somehow I caught the idea that it was the horse himself, rather than Flickinger, who was anxious, desperately anxious, to get through it. “He don’t like hoofs in front of him.” Where had I heard that before?

Before I could remember my heart hit my throat.

It happened like lightning. Polaris’ jockey swung his mount to the left, half closing the gap. At the same instant something exploded out of the ruck.

Exploded rocketlike, came with a rush. Henchman, a little strong-legged bay, and Henchman was running, as Polaris had never run. He went by on the outside, a bright streak.

All at once I got the pattern. The Chiswick-Hart outfit had kept a dark horse well under cover. But it was Henchman, not the touted Polaris, who carried their hopes and their money.

Which wasn’t all. Flickinger, intent on Polaris, was riding into a trap. In another stride he’d be boxed between Barchester and Polaris.

I yelled then, frantically, futilely, the way you yell when danger threatens and you’re powerless to do anything. But the sound froze on my lips. Out there, with that pocket yawning, something was wrong. Definitely wrong.

It looked as if Flickinger, carefully and surreptitiously, was pulling the Sailer’s Son. Momentarily the gingergold horse broke stride.

I tore the glasses from my eyes. I couldn’t look. But a jumble of dismaying thoughts crammed into my brain. Cavan and his veiled hints! Flickinger drunk last night! Ajax Smith! Was it happening over again? Was a fine horse being denied, as once another—

Something gripped my arm. I wheeled. I’d forgotten Kathy. Now Kathy’s face was tense, white.

“It’s all right, Jim.” The whisper slipped under the pandemonium around us. “It—it’s just got to be.”

I swung back to the track. I was in time—to see Flickinger going far to the outside, away from that pocket. He’d lost precious distance; he was losing precious time. But he had his horse clear. And the Sailer’s Son was off like a golden tornado. In a few great bounds he made Barchester and Polaris look sick.

I’d seen a lot of horses run. But, right there I realized that I’d never seen anything before. The Sailer’s Son was three lengths behind Henchman entering the back stretch. Around the last turn, and on the outside at that, he’d cut it to two. It was one and a

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half as they started down the stretch.

Then two comets swam below us. Bay clashed with a flicker of gold. A length and a half became a length— half a length. And suddenly, over the uproar, I thought I heard a shrill silvery whistle.

I could have dreamed that. I could likewise have dreamed that the sound struck some deep atavistic reflex in a flying tawny body. But I didn’t dream that tremendous spurt that pulled the Sailer’s Son level, or the way Henchman faded, or that faint white grin on Flickinger’s face.

Then there were no hoofs out front. Nothing, save the waiting wire. The Sailer’s Son slugged his head once, and ran Henchman into the ground . . .

WE SAW a great horse into his stall that afternoon. But, leaving the stables, the Colonel’s eyes bulged once again as at some monstrous spectacle.

The little man leaned against the building, sucking a straw.

“Y-you wanted me to come, Miss Kathy,” he said, embarrassedly.

Kathy smiled. “You can thank Cavan, Father, for a swell ride. He told Flick just what to do. He’s been —well, drilling him.”

“How’s that?” the Colonel barked. “I knew,” Kathy said, “that Cavan was sincere that day. But I could never have made you men believe it. So when you—er—threw him out, I went after him. And Cavan told me he suspected that the Chiswick-Hart people would pull a trick. You see, he knew that Ajax Smith had bet heavily on Henchman.”

“I couldn’t be sure just what was up, though, Colonel,” Cavan said. “So I told young Flickinger to stick with Polaris a while, but watch Henchman. And watch for a pocket, too. If he saw one, he was to go outside quick. I wasn’t afraid of losin’ ground. Not with a son of the Sailer’s. He could make it up all right. Neither him nor his old man are front runners, exactly. But they go best with nothin’ ahead of ’em. Flick done like I said. He had a time keepin’ the colt from gettin’ himself boxed. It ain’t easy to hold back horses like that. But, all told, the kid turned in a great ride.” Kathy hesitated. “Cavan, Father, spiked a few plans of Ajax Smith’s, too. You’ll have to take my word for that. Cavan hung around with the Smith crowd. But he was all for us, every step of the way.”

Naturally she couldn’t amplify it then. She told me later. Smith had been set, with big talk and real money, to proposition Flickinger the night before the race. But Cavan got to Flick first and made Flick, who’s easily led, unfit to hear propositions—with a quart of whisky. And to make doubly sure he’d called the hotel and gotten Kathy out of that dance. They’d driven Flick, drunk as a monkey, to some tourist house outside the city and Cavan stayed the night with him. Crude, maybe, but the best Cavan could think of offhand. And pretty effective, at that.

The Colonel was silent a long time. At last, slowly: “I don’t completely

understand tins, Cavan. But we seem to owe you something. And I—well,

I know what I said the other day. But I always liked your way with horses. So if you’ve definitely turned over a— ah, new leaf, Requardt could use . . .” Cavan held up his hand. In that moment, despite his smallness, he assumed stature—and dignity. “No, Colonel. The likes of me don’t belong around good horses. I slipped once. And I’d slip again—sometime. This here was just payin’ off a debt”—he smiled his rare smile—-“to an old friend.” ★