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Racetrack gambler Ben Connor knows horses. The day he first saw an Eden Gray run, he knew it was fast enough to earn a lot of money. So why not find the reclusive deaf mute who owns the Eden Grays, buy one, enter it in races and watch his fortune grow? The plans seem solid, but they're stymied when the owner refuses to sell. The gambler must now choose: forget his scheme, or plunge deeper to see it come true.A clever and intriguing ride around track in Max Brand's inventive mind."Frederick Schiller Faust (1892-1944) was an American fiction author known primarily for his thoughtful and literary Westerns. Faust wrote mostly under pen names, and today he is primarily known by one, Max Brand. Others include George Owen Baxter, Martin Dexter, Evin Evans, David Manning, Peter Dawson, John Frederick, and Pete Morland. Faust was born in Seattle. He grew up in central California and later worked as a cowhand on one of the many ranches of the San Joaquin Valley. Faust attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he began to write frequently. During the 1910s, Faust started to sell stories to the many emerging pulp magazines of the era. In the 1920s, Faust wrote furiously in many genres, achieving success and fame, first in the pulps and later in the upscale "slick" magazines. His love for mythology was, however, a constant source of inspiration for his fiction and his classical and literary inclinations. The classical influences are particularly noticeable in his first novel The Untamed (1919), which was also made into a motion picture starring Tom Mix in 1920.
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BY CAREFUL TAILORING THE broad shoulders of Ben Connor were made to appear fashionably slender, and he disguised the depth of his chest by a stoop whose model slouched along Broadway somewhere between sunset and dawn. He wore, moreover, the first or second pair of spats that had ever stepped off the train at Lukin Junction, a glowing Scotch tweed, and a Panama hat of the color and weave of fine old linen. There was a skeleton at this Feast of Fashion, however, for only tight gloves could make the stubby fingers and broad palms of Connor presentable. At ninety-five in the shade gloves were out of the question, so he held a pair of yellow chamois in one hand and in the other an amber-headed cane. This was the end of the little spur-line, and while the train backed off down the track, staggering across the switch, Ben Connor looked after it, leaning upon his cane just forcibly enough to feel the flection of the wood. This was one of his attitudes of elegance, and when the train was out of sight, and only the puffs of white vapor rolled around the shoulder of the hill, he turned to look the town over, having already given Lukin Junction ample time to look over Ben Connor.
The little crowd was not through with its survey, but the eye of the imposing stranger abashed it. He had one of those long somber faces which Scotchmen call “dour.” The complexion was sallow, heavy pouches of sleeplessness lay beneath his eyes, and there were ridges beside the corners of his mouth which came from an habitual compression of the lips. Looked at in profile he seemed to be smiling broadly so that the gravity of the full face was always surprising. It was this that made the townsfolk look down. After a moment, they glanced back at him hastily. Somewhere about the corners of his lips or his eyes there was a glint of interest, a touch of amusement—they could not tell which, but from that moment they were willing to forget the clothes and look at the man.
While Ben Connor was still enjoying the situation, a rotund fellow bore down on him.
“You’re Mr. Connor, ain’t you? You wired for a room in the hotel? Come on, then. My rig is over here. These your grips?”
He picked up the suit case and the soft leather traveling bag, and led the way to a buckboard at which stood two downheaded ponies.
“Can’t we walk?” suggested Ben Connor, looking up and down the street at the dozen sprawling frame houses; but the fat man stared at him with calm pity. He was so fat and so good-natured that even Ben Connor did not impress him greatly.
“Maybe you think this is Lukin?” he asked.
When the other raised his heavy black eyebrows he explained: “This ain’t nothing but Lukin Junction. Lukin is clear round the hill. Climb in, Mr. Connor.”
Connor laid one hand on the back of the seat, and with a surge of his strong shoulders leaped easily into his place; the fat man noted this with a roll of his little eyes, and then took his own place, the old wagon careening toward him as he mounted the step. He sat with his right foot dangling over the side of the buckboard, and a plump shoulder turned fairly upon his passenger so that when he spoke he had to throw his head and jerk out the words; but this was apparently his time-honored position in the wagon, and he did not care to vary it for the sake of conversation. A flap of the loose reins set the horses jog-trotting out of Lukin Junction down a gulch which aimed at the side of an enormous mountain, naked, with no sign of a village or even a single shack among its rocks. Other peaks crowded close on the right and left, with a loftier range behind, running up to scattered summits white with snow and blue with distance. The shadows of the late afternoon were thick as fog in the gulch, and all the lower mountains were already dim so that the snow-peaks in the distance seemed as detached, and high as clouds. Ben Connor sat with his cane between his knees and his hands draped over its amber head and watched those shining places until the fat man heaved his head over his shoulder.
“Most like somebody told you about Townsend’s Hotel?”
His passenger moved his attention from the mountain to his companion. He was so leisurely about it that it seemed he had not heard.
“Yes,” he said, “I was told of the place.”
“Who?” said the other expectantly.
“A friend of mine.”
The fat man grunted and worked his head around so far that a great wrinkle rolled up his neck close to his ear. He looked into the eye of the stranger.
“Me being Jack Townsend, I’m sort of interested to know things like that; the ones that like my place and them that don’t.”
Connor nodded, but since he showed no inclination to name his friend, Jack Townsend swung on a new tack to come to the windward of this uncommunicative guest. Lukin was a fairly inquisitive town, and the hotel proprietor usually contributed his due portion and more to the gossips.
“Some comes for one reason and some for another,” went on Townsend, “which generally it’s to hunt and fish. That ain’t funny come to think of it, because outside of liars nobody ever hooked finer trout than what comes out of the Big Sandy. Some of ‘em comes for the mining—they was a strike over to South Point last week—and some for the cows, but mostly it’s the fishing and the hunting.”
He paused, but having waited in vain he said directly: “I can show you the best holes in the Big Sandy.”
There was another of those little waits with which, it seemed, the stranger met every remark; not a thoughtful pause, but rather as though he wondered if it were worth while to make any answer.
“I’ve come here for the silence,” he said.
“Silence,” repeated Townsend, nodding in the manner of one who does not understand.
Then he flipped the roan with the butt of his lines and squinted down the gulch, for he felt there might be a double meaning in the last remark. Filled with the gloomy conviction that he was bringing a silent man to his hotel, he gloomily surveyed the mountain sides. There was nothing about them to cheer him. The trees were lost in shadows and all the slopes seemed quite barren of life. He vented a little burst of anger by yanking at the rein of the off horse, a dirty gray.
“Giddap, Kitty, damn your eyes!”
The mare jumped, struck a stone with a fore foot, and stumbled heavily. Townsend straightened her out again with an expert hand and cursed.
“Of all the no-good hosses I ever see,” he said, inviting the stranger to share in his just wrath, “this Kitty is the outbeatingest, no good rascal. Git on, fool.”
He clapped the reins along her back, and puffed his disgust.
“And yet she has points. Now, I ask you, did you ever see a truer Steeldust? Look at that high croup and that straight rump. Look at them hips, I say, and a chest to match ‘em. But they ain’t any heart in her. Take a hoss through and through,” he went on oracularly, “they’re pretty much like men, mostly, and if a man ain’t got the heart inside, it don’t make no difference how big around the chest he measures.”
Ben Connor had leaned forward, studying the mare.
“Your horse would be all right in her place,” he said. “Of course, she won’t do up here in the mountains.”
Like any true Westerner of the mountain-desert, Jack Townsend would far rather have been discovered with his hand in the pocket of another man than be observed registering surprise. He looked carefully ahead until his face was straight again. Then he turned.
“Where d’you make out her place to be?” he asked carelessly.
“Down below,” said the other without hesitation, and he waved his arm. “Down in soft, sandy irrigation country she’d be a fine animal.”
Jack Townsend blinked. “You know her?” he asked.
The other shook his head.
“Well, damn my soul!” breathed the hotel proprietor. “This beats me. Maybe you read a hoss’s mind, partner?”
Connor shrugged his shoulders, but Townsend no longer took offense at the taciturnity of his companion; he spoke now in a lower confiding voice which indicated an admission of equality.
“You’re right. They said she was good, and she was good! I seen her run; I saddled her up and rode her thirty miles through sand that would of broke the heart of anything but a Steeldust, and she come through without battin’ an eye. But when I got her up here she didn’t do no good. But"—he reverted suddenly to his original surprise—"how’d you know her? Recognize the brand, maybe?”
“By her trot,” said the other, and he looked across the hills.
They had turned an angle of the gulch, and on a shelf of level ground, dishing out from the side of the mountain, stretched the town.
“Isn’t it rather odd,” said Connor, “for people to build a town over here when they could have it on the railroad?”
“Maybe it looks queer to some,” nodded Townsend.
He closed his lips firmly, determined to imitate the terseness of his guest; but when he observed with a side-glance that Connor would not press the inquiry, talk suddenly overflowed. Indeed, Townsend was a running well of good nature, continually washing all bad temper over the brim.
“I’ll show you how it was,” he went on. “You see that shoulder of the mountain away off up there? If the light was clearer you’d be able to make out some old shacks up there, half standin’ up and half fallin’ down. That’s where Lukin used to be. Well, the railroad come along and says: ‘We’re goin’ to run a spur into the valley, here. You move down and build your town at the end of the track and we’ll give you a hand bringing up new timber for the houses.’ That’s the way with railroads; they want to dictate; they’re too used to handlin’ folks back East that’ll let capital walk right over their backs.”
Here Townsend sent a glance at Connor to see if he stirred under the spur, but there was no sign of irritation.
“Out here we’re different; nobody can’t step in here and run us unless he’s asked. See? We said, you build the railroad halfway and we’ll come the other half, but we won’t come clear down into the valley.”
“Why?” asked Connor. “Isn’t Lukin Junction a good place for a village?”
“Fine. None better. But it’s the principle of the thing, you see? Them railroad magnates says to us: ‘Come all the way.’ ‘Go to the devil,’ says we. And so we come halfway to the new railroad and built our town; it’d be a pile more agreeable to have Lukin over where the railroad ends—look at the way I have to drive back and forth for my trade? But just the same, we showed that railroad that it couldn’t talk us down.”
He struck his horses savagely with the lines; they sprang from the jog-trot into a canter, and the buckboard went bumping down the main street of Lukin.
BEN CONNOR SAT IN his room overlooking the crossing of the streets. It was by no means the ramshackle huddle of lean-to’s that he had expected, for Lukin was built to withstand a siege of January snows and storm-winds which were scooped by the mountains into a funnel that focused straight on the village. Besides, Lukin was no accidental, crossroads town, but the bank, store, and amusement center of a big country. The timber was being swept from the Black Mountain; there were fairly prosperous mines in the vicinity; and cattlemen were ranging their cows over the plateaus more and more during the spring and summer. Therefore, Lukin boasted two parallel main streets, and a cross street, looking forward to the day when it should be incorporated and have a mayor of its own. At present it had a moving-picture house and a dance hall where a hundred and fifty couples could take the floor at once; above all, it had Jack Townsend’s hotel. This was a stout, timber building of two stories, the lower portion of which was occupied by the restaurant, the drug store, the former saloon now transformed into an ice-cream parlor, and other public places.
It was dark, but the night winds had not yet commenced, and Lukin sweltered with a heat more unbearable than full noon.
It was nothing to Ben Connor, however, for he was fresh from the choking summer nights of Manhattan, and in Lukin, no matter how hot it became, the eye could always find a cool prospect. It had been unpleasant enough when the light was burning, for the room was done in a hot, orange-colored paper, but when he blew out the lamp and sat down before the window he forgot the room and let his glance go out among the mountains. A young moon drifted across the corner of his window, a sickle of light with a dim, phosphorescent line around the rest of the circle. It was bright enough to throw the peaks into strong relief, and dull enough to let the stars live.
His upward vision had as a rule been limited by the higher stories of some skyscraper, and now his eye wandered with a pleasant sense of freedom over the snow summits where he could imagine a cold wind blowing through reach after reach of the blue-gray sky. It pleased and troubled Ben Connor very much as one is pleased and troubled by the first study of a foreign language, with new prospects opening, strange turns of thought, and great unknown names like stars. But after a time Ben Connor relaxed. The first cool puff moved across his forehead and carried him halfway to a dreamless sleep.
Here a chorus of mirth burst up at him from the street, men’s voices pitched high and wild, the almost hysterical laughter of people who are much alone. In Manhattan only drunken men laughed like this. Among the mountains it did not irritate Ben Connor; in tune with the rest, it was full of freedom. He looked down to the street, and seeing half a dozen bearded fellows frolic in the shaft of light from a window, he decided that people kept their youth longer in Lukin.
All things seemed in order to Connor, this night. He rolled his sleeves higher to let all the air that stirred get at his bulky forearms, and then lighted a cigar. It was a dark, oily Havana—it had cost him a great deal in money and nerves to acquire that habit—and he breathed the scent deep while he waited for the steady wind which Jack Townsend had promised. There was just enough noise to give the silence that waiting quality which cannot be described; below him voices murmured, and lifted now and then, rhythmically. Ben Connor thought the sounds strangely musical, and he began to brim with the same good nature which puffed the cheeks of Jack Townsend. There was a substantial basis for that content in the broiled trout which he had had for dinner. It was while his thoughts drifted back to those browned fish that the first wind struck him. Dust with an acrid scent whirled up from the street—then a steady stream of air swept his face and arms.
It was almost as if another personality had stepped into the room. The sounds from the street fell away, and there was the rustling of cloth somewhere, the cool lifting of hair from his forehead, and an odd sense of motion—as if the wind were blowing through him. But something else came with the breeze, and though he noted it at first with only a subconscious discontent, it beat gradually into his mind, a light ticking, very rapid, and faint, and sounding in an irregular rhythm. He wanted to straighten out that rhythm and make the flutter of tapping regular. Then it began to take on a meaning; it framed words.
“Philip Lord, jailed for embezzlement.”
“Hell!” burst out Ben Connor. “The telegraph!”
He started up from his chair, feeling betrayed, for that light, irregular tapping was the voice of the world from which he had fled. A hard, cool mind worked behind the gray eyes of Ben Connor, but as he fingered the cigar his brain was fumbling at a large idea. Forty-Second and Broadway was calling him back.
When he looked out the window, now, the mountains were flat shapes against a flat sky, with no more meaning than a picture.
The sounder was chattering: “Kid Lane wins title in eighth round. Lucky punch dethrones lightweight champion.” Ben Connor swallowed hard and found that his throat was dry. He was afraid of himself—afraid that he would go back. He was recalled from his ugly musing by the odor of the cigar, which had burned out and was filling the room with a rank smell; he tossed the crumbled remnants through the window, crushed his hat upon his head, and went down, collarless, coatless, to get on the street in the sound of men’s voices. If he had been in Manhattan he would have called up a pal; they would have planned an evening together; but in Lukin—
At the door below he glared up and down the street. There was nothing to see but a light buggy which rolled noiselessly through the dust. A dog detached itself from behind the vehicle and came to bark furiously at his feet. The kicking muscles in Connor’s leg began to twitch, but a voice shouted and the mongrel trotted away, growling a challenge over its shoulder. The silence fell once more. He turned and strode back to the desk of the hotel, behind which Jack Townsend sat tilted back in his chair reading a newspaper.
“What’s doing in this town of yours to-night?” he asked.
The proprietor moistened a fat thumb to turn the page and looked over his glasses at Connor.
“Appears to me there ain’t much stirrin’ about,” he said. “Except for the movies down the street. You see, everybody’s there.”
“Movies,” muttered Connor under his breath, and looked savagely around him.
What his eyes fell on was a picture of an old, old man on the wall, and the rusted stove which stood in the center of the room with a pipe zigzagging uncertainly toward the ceiling. Everything was out of order, broken down—like himself.
“Looks to me like you’re kind of off your feet,” said Jack Townsend, and he laid down his paper and looked wistfully at his guest. He made up his mind. “If you’re kind of dry for a drink,” he said, “I might rustle you a flask of red-eye—”
“Whisky?” echoed Connor, and moistened his lips. Then he shook his head. “Not that.”
He went back to the door with steps so long and heavy that Jack Townsend rose from his chair, and spreading his hands on the desk, peered after the muscular figure.
“That gent is a bad hombre,” pronounced Jack to himself. He sat down again with a sigh, and added: “Maybe.”
At the door Connor was snarling: “Quiet? Sure; like a grave!”
The wind freshened, fell away, and the light, swift ticking sounded again more clearly. It mingled with the alkali scent of the dust—Manhattan and the desert together. He felt a sense of persecuted virtue. But one of his maxims was: “If anything bothers you, go and find out about it.”
Ben Connor largely used maxims and epigrams; he met crises by remembering what some one else had said. The ticking of the sounder was making him homesick and dangerously nervous, so he went to find the telegrapher and see the sounder which brought the voice of the world into Lukin.
A few steps carried him to a screen door through which he looked upon a long, narrow office.
In a corner, an electric fan swung back and forth through a hurried arc and fluttered papers here and there. Its whining almost drowned the ticking of the sounder, and Ben Connor wondered with dull irritation how a tapping which was hardly audible at the door of the office could carry to his room in the hotel. He opened the door and entered.
IT WAS A ROOM not more than eight feet wide, very long, with the floor, walls, and ceiling of the same narrow, unpainted pine boards; the flooring was worn ragged and the ceiling warped into waves. Across the room a wide plank with a trapdoor at one end served as a counter, and now it was littered with yellow telegraph blanks, and others, crumpled up, were scattered about Connor’s feet. No sooner had the screen door squeaked behind him and shut him fairly into the place than the staccato rattling of the sounder multiplied, and seemed to chatter from the wall behind him. It left an echoing in the ear of Ben Connor which formed into the words of his resolution, “I’ve made my stake and I’m going to beat it. I’m going to get away where I can forget the worries. To-day I beat ‘em. Tomorrow the worries will beat me.”
That was why he was in Lukin—to forget. And here the world had sneaked up on him and whispered in his ear. Was it fair?
It was a woman who “jerked lightning” for Lukin. With that small finger on the key she took the pulse of the world.
“Belmont returns—” chattered the sounder.
Connor instinctively covered his ears. Then, feeling that he was acting like a silly child, he lowered his hands.
Another idea had come to him that this was fate—luck—his luck. Why not take another chance?
He wavered a moment, fighting the temptation and gloomily studying the back of the operator. The cheapness of her white cotton dress fairly shouted at him. Also her hair straggled somewhat about the nape of her neck. All this irritated Connor absurdly.
“Fifth race,” said the sounder: “Lady Beck, first; Conqueror, second—”
Certainly this was fate tempting tune.
Connor snatched a telegraph blank and scribbled a message to Harry Slocum, his betting commissioner during this unhappy vacation.
“Send dope on Murray handicaps time—trials of Trickster and Caledonian. Hotel Townsend.”
This done, having tapped sharply on the counter to call the operator’s attention, he dropped his elbows on the plank and scowled downward in profound reverie. They were pouring out of Belmont Park, now, many a grim face and many a joyous face. Money had come easy and gone easy. Ah, the reckless bonhomie of that crowd, living for to-day only, because “to-morrow the ponies may have it!” A good day for the bookies if that old cripple, Lady Beck, had found her running legs. What a trimming they must have given the wise ones!
At this point another hand came into the circle of his vision and turned the telegram about. A pencil flicked across the words, checking them swiftly. Connor was fascinated by that hand, it was so cool, so slender and deft. He glanced up to her face and saw a resolute chin, a smiling mouth which was truly lovely, and direct eyes as dark as his own. She carried her head buoyantly, in a way that made Connor think, with a tingle, of some clean-blooded filly at the post.
The girl made his change, and shoving it across, she bent her head toward the sounder. The characters came through too swiftly for even Ben Connor’s sharp ear, but the girl, listening, smiled slowly.
“Something about soft pine?” queried Connor.
She brightened at this unexpected meeting-point. Her eyes widened as she studied him and listened to the message at the same time, and she accomplished this double purpose with such calm that Connor felt a trifle abashed. Then the shadow of listening vanished, and she concentrated on Connor.
“Soft pine is up,” she nodded. “I knew it would climb as soon as old Lucas bought in.”
“Speculator in Lukin, is he?”
“No. California. The one whose yacht burned at Honolulu last year. Sold pine like wild fire two months ago; down goes the price. Then he bought a little while ago, and now the pine skyrockets. He can buy a new yacht with what he makes, I suppose!”
The shade of listening darkened her eyes again. “Listen!” She raised a hushing forefinger that seemed tremulous in rhythm with the ticking.
“Wide brims are in again,” exclaimed the operator, “and wide hats are awful on me; isn’t that the luck?”
She went back to her key with the message in her hand, and Connor, dropping his elbows on the counter, watched her send it with swift almost imperceptible flections of her wrist.
Then she sat again with her hands folded in her lap, listening. Connor turned his head and glanced through the door; by squinting he could look over the roof just across the street and see the shadowy mountains beyond; then he looked back again and watched the girl listening to the voice of the outer world. The shock of the contrast soothed. He began to forget about Ben Connor and think of her.
The girl turned in her chair and directly faced him, and he saw that she moved her whole body just as she moved her hand, swiftly, but without a jerk; she considered him gravely.
“Lonely?” she inquired. “Or worried?”
She spoke with such a commonplace intonation that one might have thought it her business to attend to loneliness and worries.
“As a matter of fact,” answered Ben Connor, instinctively dodging the direct query, “I’ve been wondering how they happened to stick a number-one artist on this wire.
“I’m not kidding,” he explained hastily. “You see, I used to jerk lightning myself.”
For the first time she really smiled, and he discovered what a rare thing a smile may be. Up to that point he had thought she lacked something, just as the white dress lacked a touch of color.
“Oh,” she nodded. “Been off the wire long?”
Ben Connor grinned. It began with his lips; last of all the dull gray eyes lighted.
“Ever since a hot day in July at Aqueduct. The Lorrimer Handicap on the 11th of July, to be exact. I tossed up my job the next day.”
“I see,” she said, becoming aware of him again. “You played Tip-Top Second.”
“The deuce! Were you at Aqueduct that day?”
“I was here—on the wire.” He restrained himself with an effort, for a series of questions was Connor’s idea of a dull conversation. He merely rubbed his knuckles against his chin and looked at her wistfully.
“He nipped King Charles and Miss Lazy at the wire and squeezed home by a nose—paid a fat price, I remember,” went on the girl. “I suppose you had something down on him?”
“Did a friend of yours play that race?”
“Oh, no; but I was new to the wire, then, and I used to cut in and listen to everything that came by.”
“I know. It’s like having some one whisper secrets in your ear, at first, isn’t it? But you remember the Lorrimer, eh? That was a race!”
The sounder stopped chattering, and by an alternation in her eyes he knew that up to that moment she had been giving two-thirds of her attention to the voice of the wire and the other fraction to him; but now she centered upon him, and he wanted to talk. As if, mysteriously, he could share some of the burden of his unrest with the girl. Most of all he wished to talk because this office had lifted him back to the old days of “lightning jerking,” when he worked for a weekly pay-check. The same nervous eagerness which had been his in that time was now in this girl, and he responded to it like a call of blood to blood.
“A couple of wise ones took me out to Aqueduct that day: I had all that was coming to me for a month in my pocket, and I kept saying to myself: ‘They think I’ll fall for this game and drop my wad; here’s where I fool ‘em!’”
He chuckled as he remembered.
“Go on,” said the girl. “You make me feel as if I were about to make a clean-up!”
She fixed an eager glance on him, as though she were judging how far she might let herself go. Suddenly she leaned closer to Connor.
“Interested? I’ve been taking the world off the wire for six years—and you’ve been where things happen.”
“That’s the way I felt at Aqueduct when I saw the ponies parade past the grand stand the first time,” he nodded. “They came dancing on the bitt, and even I could see that they weren’t made for use; legs that never pulled a wagon, and backs that couldn’t weight. Just toys; speed machines; all heart and fire and springy muscles. It made my pulse jump to the fever point to watch them light-foot it along the rail with the groom in front on a clod of a horse. I felt that I’d lived the way that horse walked—downheaded, and I decided to change.”
He stopped short and locked his stubby fingers together, frowning at her so that the lines beside his mouth deepened.
“I seem to be telling you the story of my life,” he said. Then he saw that she was studying him, not with idle curiosity, but rather as one turns the pages of an absorbing book, never knowing what the next moment will reveal or where the characters will be taken.
“You want to talk; I want to hear you,” she said gravely. “Go ahead. Besides—I don’t chatter afterward. They paraded past the grand stand, then what?”
Ben Connor sighed.
“I watched four races. The wise guys with me were betting ten bucks on every race and losing on red-hot tips; and every time I picked out the horse that looked good to me, that horse ran in the money. Then they came out for the Lorrimer. One of my friends was betting on King Charles and the other on Miss Lazy. Both of them couldn’t win, and the chance was that neither of them would. So I looked over the line as it went by the stand. King Charles was a little chestnut, one of those long fellows that stretch like rubber when they commence running; Miss Lazy was a gangling bay. Yes, they were both good horses, but I looked over the rest, and pretty soon I saw a rangy chestnut with a white foreleg and a midget of a boy up in the saddle. ‘No. 7—Tip-Top Second,’ said the wise guy on my right when I asked him; ‘a lame one.’ Come to look at him again, he was doing a catch step with his front feet, but I had an idea that when he got going he’d forget all about that catch and run like the wind. Understand?”
“Just a hunch,” said the girl. “Yes!”
She stepped closer to the counter and leaned across it. Her eyes were bright. Connor knew that she was seeing that picture of the hot day, the crowd of straw hats stirring wildly, the murmur and cry that went up as the string of racers jogged past.
“They went to the post,” said Connor, “and I got down my bet—a hundred dollars, my whole wad—on Tip-Top Second. The bookie looked just once at me, and I’ll never forget how his eyebrows went together. I went back to my seat.”
“You were shaking all over, I guess,” suggested the girl, and her hands were quivering.
“I was not,” said Ben Connor, “I was cold through and through, and never moved my eyes off Tip-Top Second. His jockey had a green jacket with two stripes through it, and the green was easy to watch. I saw the crowd go off, and I saw Tip-Top left flat-footed at the post.”
The girl drew a breath. Connor smiled at her. The hot evening had flushed his face, but now a small spot of white appeared in either cheek, and his dull eyes had grown expressionless. She knew what he meant when he said that he was cold when he saw the string go to the post.
“It—it must have made you sick!” said the girl.
“Not a bit. I knew the green jacket was going to finish ahead of the rest as well as I knew that my name was Ben Connor. I said he was left at the post. Well, it wasn’t exactly that, but when the bunch came streaking out of the shoot, he was half a dozen lengths behind. It was a mile and an eighth race. They went down the back stretch, eight horses all bunched together, and the green jacket drifting that half dozen lengths to the rear. The wise guys turned and grinned at me; then they forgot all about me and began to yell for King Charles and Miss Lazy.
“The bunch were going around the turn and the two favorites were fighting it out together. But I had an eye for the green jacket, and halfway around the turn I saw him move up.”
The girl sighed.
“No,” Connor continues, “he hadn’t won the race yet. And he never should have won it at all, but King Charles was carrying a hundred and thirty-eight pounds, and Miss Lazy a hundred and thirty-three, while Tip-Top Second came in as a fly-weight eighty-seven pounds! No horse in the world could give that much to him when he was right, but who guessed that then?
“They swung around the turn and hit the stretch. Tip-Top took the curve like a cart horse. Then the bunch straightened out, with King Charles and Miss Lazy fighting each other in front and the rest streaking out behind like the tail of a flag. They did that first mile in 1.38, but they broke their hearts doing it, with that weight up.
“They had an eighth to go—one little measly furlong, with Tip-Top in the ruck, and the crowd screaming for King Charles and Miss Lazy; but just exactly at the mile post the leaders flattened. I didn’t know it, but the man in front of me dropped his glasses and his head. ‘Blown!’ he said, and that was all. It seemed to me that the two in front were running as strongly as ever, but Tip-Top was running better. He came streaking, with the boy flattening out along his neck and the whip going up and down. But I didn’t stir. I couldn’t; my blood was turned to ice water.
“Tip-Top walked by the ruck and got his nose on the hip of King Charles. Somebody was yelling behind me in a squeaky voice: ‘There is something wrong! There’s something wrong!’ There was, too, and it was the eighty-seven pounds that a fool handicapper had put on Tip-Top. At the sixteenth Miss Lazy threw up her head like a swimmer going down and dropped back, and Tip-Top was on the King’s shoulder. Fifty yards to the finish; twenty-five—then the King staggered as if he’d been hit between the ears, and Tip-Top jumped out to win by a neck.
“There was one big breath of silence in the grand stand—then a groan. I turned my head and saw the two wise guys looking at me with sick grins. Afterward I collected two thousand bucks from a sicker looking bookie.”
He paused and smiled at the girl.
“That was the 11th of July. First real day of my life.”
She gathered her mind out of that scene.
“You stepped out of a telegraph office, with your finger on the key all day, every day, and you jumped into two thousand dollars?”
After she had stopped speaking her thoughts went on, written in her eyes.
“You’d like to try it, eh?” said Ben Connor.
“Haven’t you had years of happiness out of it?”
He looked at her with a grimace.
“Happiness?” he echoed. “Happiness?”
She stepped back so that she put his deeply-marked face in a better light.
“You’re a queer one for a winner.”
“Sure, the turf is crowded with queer ones like me.”
“Winners, all of ‘em?”
His eye had been gradually brightening while he talked to her. He felt that the girl rang true, as men ring true, yet there was nothing masculine about her.
“You’ve heard racing called the sport of kings? That’s because only kings can afford to follow the ponies. Kings and Wall Street. But a fellow can’t squeeze in without capital. I’ve made a go of it for a while; pretty soon we all go smash. Sooner or later I’ll do what everybody else does—put up my cash on a sure thing and see my money go up in smoke.”
“Then why don’t you pull out with what you have?”
“Why does the earth keep running around the sun? Because there’s a pull. Once you’ve followed the ponies you’ll keep on following ‘em. No hope for it. Oh, I’ve seen the boys come up one after another, make their killings, hit a streak of bad luck, plunge, and then watch their sure-thing throw up its tail in the stretch and fade into the ruck.”
He was growing excited as he talked; he was beginning to realize that he must make his break from the turf now or never. And he spoke more to himself than to the girl.
“We all hang on. We play the game till it breaks us and still we stay with it. Here I am, two thousand miles away from the tracks—and sending for dope to make a play! Can you beat that? Well, so-long.”
He turned away gloomily.
“Good night, Mr. Connor.”
He turned sharply.
“Where’d you get that name?” he asked with a trace of suspicion.
“Off the telegram.”
He nodded, but said: “I’ve an idea I’ve been chattering to much.”
“My name is Ruth Manning,” answered the girl. “I don’t think you’ve said too much.”
He kept his eyes steadily on her while he shook hands.
“I’m glad I know some one in Lukin,” said Connor. “Good night, again.”
WHEN CONNOR WAKENED THE next morning, after his first impression of blinding light, he closed his eyes and waited for the sense of unhappy doom which usually comes to men of tense nerves and active life after sleep; but, with slow and pleasant wonder, he realized that the old numbness of brain and fever of pulse was gone. Then he looked up and lazily watched the shadow of the vine at his window move across the ceiling, a dim-bordered shadow continually changing as the wind gathered the leaves in solid masses and shook them out again. He pored upon this for a time, and next he watched a spider spinning a web in the corner; she worked in a draft which repeatedly lifted her from her place before she had fastened her thread, and dropped her a foot or more into space. Connor sat up to admire the artisan’s skill and courage. Compared to men and insects, the spider really worked over an abyss two hundred feet deep, suspended by a silken thread. Connor slipped out of bed and stood beneath the growing web while the main cross threads were being fastened. He had been there for some time when, turning away to rub the ache out of the back of his neck, he again met the contrast between the man of this morning and the man of other days.
This time it was his image in the mirror, meeting him as he turned. That deep wrinkle in the middle of the forehead was half erased. The lips were neither compressed nor loose and shaking, and the eye was calm—it rested him to meet that glance in the mirror.
A mood of idle content always brings one to the window: Connor looked out on the street. A horseman hopped past like a day shadow, the hoofbeats muffled by thick sand, and the wind, moving at an exactly equal pace, carried a mist of dust just behind the horse’s tail. Otherwise there was neither life nor color in the street of weather-beaten, low buildings, and the eye of Connor went beyond the roofs and began to climb the mountains. Here was a bald bright cliff, there a drift of trees, and again a surface of raw clay from which the upper soil had recently slipped; but these were not stopping points—they were rather the steps which led the glance to a sky of pale and transparent blue, and Connor felt a great desire to have that sky over him in place of a ceiling.
He splashed through a hasty bath, dressed, and ran down the stairs, humming. Jack Townsend stood on a box in the corner of the room, probing at a spider web in the corner.
“Too late for breakfast?” asked Connor.
The fat shoulders of the proprietor quivered, but he did not turn.
“Too late,” he snapped. “Breakfast over at nine. No favorites up here.”
Connor waited for the wave of irritation to rise in him, but to his own surprise he found himself saying:
“All right; you can’t throw a good horse off his feed by cutting out one meal.”
Jack Townsend faced his guest, rubbing his many-folded chin.
“Don’t take long for this mountain air to brace up a gent, does it?” he asked rather pointedly.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Connor. “It isn’t the air so much; it’s the people that do a fellow good.”
“Well,” admitted the proprietor modestly, “they may be something in that. Kind of heartier out here, ain’t they? More than in the city, I guess. I’ll tell you what,” he added. “I’ll go out and speak to the missus about a snack for you. It’s late, but we like to be obligin’.”
He climbed carefully down from the box and started away.
“That girl again,” thought Connor, and snapped his fingers. His spirits continued to rise, if that were possible, during the breakfast of ham and eggs, and coffee of a taste so metallic that only a copious use of cream made it drinkable. Jack Townsend, recovering to the full his customary good nature, joined his guest in a huge piece of toast with a layer of ham on it—simply to keep a stranger from eating alone, he said—and while he ate he talked about the race. Connor had noticed that the lobby was almost empty.
“They’re over lookin’ at the hosses,” said Townsend, “and gettin’ their bets down.”
Connor laid down knife and fork, and resumed them hastily, but thereafter his interest in his food was entirely perfunctory. From the corner of his eye a gleam kept steadily upon the face of Townsend, who continued:
“Speaking personal, Mr. Connor, I’d like to have you look over them hosses yourself.”
Connor, on the verge of speech, checked himself with a quick effort.
“Because,” continued Townsend, “if I had your advice I might get down a little stake on one of ‘em. You see?”
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