Chapter Twelve: Sport O' Kings
 

Sunday happened to be fair, with not too strong a wind blowing. Before noon Little Lost ranch was a busy place, and just before dinner it became busier. Horse-racing seemed to be as popular a sport in the valley as dancing. Indeed, men came riding in who had not come to the dance. The dry creek- bed where the horses would run had no road leading to it, so that all vehicles came to Little Lost and remained there while the passengers continued on foot to the races.

At the corral fresh shaven men, in clean shirts to distinguish this as a dress-up occasion, foregathered, looking over the horses and making bets and arguing. Pop shambled here and there, smoking cigarettes furiously and keeping a keen ear toward the loudest betting. He came sidling up to Bud, who was leading Smoky out of the stable, and his sharp eyes took in every inch of the horse and went inquiringly to Bud's face.

"Goin' to run him, young feller--lame as what he is?" he demanded sharply.

"Going to try, anyway," said Bud. "I've got a bet up on him, dad."

"Sho! Fixin' to lose, air ye? You kin call it off, like as not. Jeff ain't so onreason'ble 't he'd make yuh run a lame horse. Air yuh, Jeff?"

Jeff strolled up and looked Smoky over with critical eyes. "What's the matter? Ain't the kid game to run him? Looks to me like a good little goer."

"He's got a limp--but I'll run him anyway." Bud glanced up. "Maybe when he's warmed up he'll forget about it."

"Seen my Skeeter?"

"Good horse, I should judge," Bud observed indifferently. "But I ain't worrying any."

"Well, neither am I," Jeff grinned.

Pop stood teetering back and forth, plainly uneasy. "I'd rub him right good with liniment," he advised Bud. "I'll git some't I know ought t' help."

"What's the matter, Pop? You got money up on that cayuse?" Jeff laughed.

Pop whirled on him. "I ain't got money up on him, no. But if he wasn't lame I'd have some! I'd show ye 't I admire gameness in a kid. I would so."

Jeff nudged his neighbor into laughter. "There ain't a gamer old bird in the valley than Pop," Jeff cried. "C'm awn, Pop, I'll bet yuh ten dollars the kid beats me!"

Pop was shuffling hurriedly out of the corral after the liniment. To Jeff's challenge he made no reply whatever. The group around Jeff shooed Smoky gently toward the other side of the corral, thereby convincing themselves of the limp in his right hind foot. While not so pronounced as to be crippling, it certainly was no asset to a running horse, and the wise ones conferred together in undertones.

"That there kid's a born fool," Dave Truman stated positively. "The horse can't run. He's got the look of a speedy little animal--but shucks! The kid don't know anything about running horses. I've been talking to him, and I know. Jeff, you're taking the money away from him if you run that race."

"Well, I'm giving the kid a chance to back out," Jeff hastened to declare. "He can put it off till his horse gits well, if he wants to. I ain't going to hold him to it. I never said I was."

"That's mighty kind of you," Bud said, coming up from behind with a bottle of liniment, and with Pop at his heels. "But I'll run him just the same. Smoky has favored this foot before, and it never seemed to hurt him any. You needn't think I'm going to crawfish. You must think I'm a whining cuss--say! I'll bet another ten dollars that I don't come in more than a neck behind, lame horse or not!"

"Now, kid, don't git chancey," Pop admonished uneasily. "Twenty-five is enough money to donate to Jeff."

"That's right, kid. I like your nerve," Jeff cut in, emphasizing his approval with a slap on Bud's shoulder as he bent to lift Smoky's leg. "I've saw worse horses than this one come in ahead--it wouldn't be no sport o' kings if nobody took a chance."

"I'm taking chance enough," Bud retorted without looking up. "If I don't win this time I will the next, maybe."

"That's right," Jeff agreed heartily, winking broadly at the others behind Bud's back.

Bud rubbed Smoky's ankle with liniment, listened to various and sundry self-appointed advisers and, without seeming to think how the sums would total, took several other small bets on the race. They were small--Pop began to teeter back and forth and lift his shoulders and pull his beard--sure signs of perturbation.

"By Christmas, I'll just put up ten dollars on the kid," Pop finally cackled. "I ain't got much to lose--but I'll show yuh old Pop ain't going to see the young feller stand alone." He tried to catch Bud's eye, but that young man was busy saddling Smoky and returning jibe for jibe with the men around him, and did not glance toward Pop at all.

"I'll take this bottle in my pocket, Pop," he said with his back toward the old man, and mounted carelessly. "I'll ride him around a little and give him another good rubbing before we run. I'm betting," he added to the others frankly, "on the chance that exercise and the liniment will take the soreness out of that ankle. I don't believe it amounts to anything at all. So if any of you fellows want to bet--"

"Shucks! Don't go 'n-" Pop began, and bit the sentence in two, dropping immediately into a deep study. The kid was getting beyond Pop's understanding.

A crowd of perhaps a hundred men and women--with a generous sprinkling of unruly juveniles--lined the sheer bank of the creek-bed and watched the horses run, and screamed their cheap witticisms at the losers, and their approval of those who won. The youngster with the mysterious past and the foolhardiness to bet on a lame horse they watched and discussed, the women plainly wishing he would win--because he was handsome and young, and such a wonderful musician. The men were more cold-blooded. They could not see that Bud's good looks or the haunting melody of his voice had any bearing whatever upon his winning a race. They called him a fool, and either refused to bet at all on such a freak proposition as a lame horse running against Skeeter, or bet against him. A few of the wise ones wondered if Jeff and his bunch were merely "stringing the kid along "; if they might not let him win a little, just to make him more "chancey." But they did not think it wise to bet on that probability.

While three races were being run Bud rode with the Little Lost men, and Smoky still limped a little. Jerry Myers, still self-appointed guardian of Bud, herded him apart and called him a fool and implored him to call the race off and keep his money in his own pocket.

Bud was thinking just then about a certain little woman who sat on the creek bank with a wide-brimmed straw hat shading her wonderful eyes, and a pair of little, high-arched feet tapping heels absently against the bank wall. Honey sat beside her, and a couple of the valley women whom Bud had met at the dance. He had ridden close and paused for a few friendly sentences with the quartette, careful to give Honey the attention she plainly expected. But it was not Honey who wore the wide hat and owned the pretty little feet. Bud pulled his thoughts back from a fruitless wish that he might in some way help that little woman whose trouble looked from her eyes, and whose lips smiled so bravely. He did not think of possession when he thought of her; it was the look in her eyes, and the slighting tones in which Honey spoke of her.

"Say, come alive! What yuh going off in a trance for, when I'm talking to yuh for your own good?" Jerry smiled whimsically, but his eyes were worried.

Bud pulled himself together and reined closer.

"Don't bet anything on this race, Jerry," he advised "Or if you do, don't bet on Skeeter. But--well, I'll just trade you a little advice for all you've given me. Don't bet!"

"What the hell!" surprise jolted out of Jerry.

"It's my funeral," Bud laughed. "I'm a chancey kid, you see-- but I'd hate to see you bet on me." He pulled up to watch the next race--four nervy little cow-horses of true range breeding, going down to the quarter post.

"They 're going to make false starts aplenty," Bud remarked after the first fluke." Jeff and I have it out next. I'll just give Smoke another treatment." He dismounted, looked at Jerry undecidedly and slapped him on the knee. "I'm glad to have a friend like you," he said impulsively. "There's a lot of two-faced sinners around here that would steal a man blind. Don't think I'm altogether a fool."

Jerry looked at him queerly, opened his mouth and shut it again so tightly that his jawbones stood out a little. He watched Bud bathing Smoky's ankle. When Bud was through and handed Jerry the bottle to keep for him, Jerry held him for an instant by the hand.

"Say, for Gawdsake don't talk like that promiscuous, Bud," he begged. "You might hit too close--"

"Ay, Jerry! Ever hear that old Armenian proverb, 'He who tells the truth should have one foot in the stirrup'? I learned that in school."

Jerry let go Bud's hand and took the bottle, Bud's watch that had his mother's picture pasted in the back, and his vest, a pocket of which contained a memorandum of his wagers. Bud was stepping out of his chaps, and he looked up and grinned. "Cheer up, Jerry. You're going to laugh in a minute." When Jerry still remained thoughtful, Bud added soberly, "I appreciate you and old Pop standing by me. I don't know just what you've got on your mind, but the fact that there's something is hint enough for me." Whereupon Jerry's eyes lightened a little.

The four horses came thundering down the track, throwing tiny pebbles high into the air as they passed. A trim little sorrel won, and there was the usual confusion of voices upraised in an effort to be heard. When that had subsided, interest once more centered on Skeeter and Smoky, who seemed to have recovered somewhat from his lameness.

Not a man save Pop and Bud had placed a bet on Smoky, yet every man there seemed keenly interested in the race. They joshed Bud, who grinned and took it good-naturedly, and found another five dollars in--his pocket to bet--this time with Pop, who kept eyeing him sharply--and it seemed to Bud warningly. But Bud wanted to play his own game, this time, and he avoided Pop's eyes.

The two men rode down the hoof-scored sand to the quarter post, Skeeter dancing sidewise at the prospect of a race, Smoky now and then tentatively against Bud's steady pressure of the bit.

"He's not limping now," Bud gloated as they rode. But Jeff only laughed tolerantly and made no reply.

Dave Truman started them with a pistol shot, and the two horses darted away, Smoky half a jump in the lead. His limp was forgotten, and for half the distance he ran neck and neck with Skeeter. Then he dropped to Skeeter's middle, to his flank--then ran with his black nose even with Skeeter's rump. Even so it was a closer race than the crowd had expected, and all the cowboys began to yell themselves purple.

But when they were yet a few leaps from the wire clothes-line stretched high, from post to post, Bud leaned forward until he lay flat alongside Smoky's neck, and gave a real Indian war-whoop. Smoky lifted and lengthened his stride, came up again to Skeeter's middle, to his shoulder, to his ears--and with the next leap thrust his nose past Skeeter's as they finished.

Well, then there was the usual noise, everyone trying to shout louder than his fellows. Bud rode to where Pop was sitting apart on a pacing gray horse that he always rode, and paused to say guardedly,

"I pulled him, Pop. But at that I won, so if I can pry another race out of this bunch to-day, you can bet all you like. And you owe me five dollars," he added thriftily.

"Sho! Shucks almighty!" spluttered Pop, reaching reluctantly into his pocket for the money. "Jeff, he done some pullin' himself--I wish I knowed," he added pettishly, "just how big a fool you air."

"Hey, come over here!" shouted Jeff. "What yuh nagging ole Pop about?"

"Pop lost five dollars on that race," Bud called back, and loped over to the crowd. "But he isn't the only one. Seems to me I've got quite a bunch of money coming to me, from this crowd!"

"Jeff, he'd a beat him a mile if his bridle rein had busted," an arrogant voice shouted recklessly. "Jeff, you old fox, you know damn well you pulled Skeeter. You must love to lose, doggone yuh."

"If you think I didn't run right," Jeff retorted, as if a little nettled, "someone else can ride the horse. That is, if the kid here ain't scared off with your talk. How about it, Bud ? Think you won fair?"

Bud was collecting his money, and he did not immediately answer the challenge. When he did it was to offer them another race. He would not, he said, back down from anyone. He would bet his last cent on little Smoky. He became slightly vociferative and more than a little vain-glorious, and within half an hour he had once more staked all the money he had in the world. The number of men who wanted to bet with him surprised him a little. Also the fact that the Little Lost men were betting on Smoky.

Honey called him over to the bank and scolded him in tones much like her name, and finally gave him ten dollars which she wanted to wager on his winning. As he whirled away, Marian beckoned impulsively and leaned forward, stretching out to him her closed hand.

"Here's ten," she smiled, "just to show that the Little Lost stands by its men--and horses. Put it on Smoky, please." When Bud was almost out of easy hearing, she called to him. "Oh-- was that a five or a ten dollar bill I gave you?"

Bud turned back, unfolding the banknote. A very tightly folded scrap of paper slid into his palm.

"Oh, all right--I have the five here in my pocket," called Marian, and laughed quite convincingly. "Go on and run! We won't be able to breathe freely until the race is over."

Wherefore Bud turned back, puzzled and with his heart jumping. For some reason Marian had taken this means of getting a message into his hands. What it could be he did not conjecture; but he had a vague, unreasoning hope that she trusted him and was asking him to help her somehow. He did not think that it concerned the race, so he did not risk opening the note then, with so many people about.

A slim, narrow-eyed youth of about Bud's weight was chosen to ride Skeeter, and together they went back over the course to the quarter post, with Dave to start them and two or three others to make sure that the race was fair. Smoky was full now of little prancing steps, and held his neck arched while his nostrils flared in excitement, showing pink within. Skeeter persistently danced sidewise, fighting the bit, crazy to run.

Skeeter made two false starts, and when the pistol was fired, jumped high into the air and forward, shaking his head, impatient against the restraint his rider put upon him. Halfway down the stretch he lunged sidewise toward Smoky, but that level-headed little horse swerved and went on, shoulder to shoulder with the other. At the very last Skeeter rolled a pebble under his foot and stumbled--and again Smoky came in with his slaty nose in the lead.

Pop rode into the centre of the yelling crowd, his whiskers bristling. "Shucks almighty!" he cried. "What fer ridin' do yuh call that there? Jeff Hall, that feller held Skeeter in worse'n what you did yourself! I kin prove it! I got a stop watch, an' I timed 'im, I did. An' I kin tell yuh the time yore horse made when he run agin Dave's Boise. He's three seconds--yes, by Christmas, he's four seconds slower t'day 'n what he's ever run before! What fer sport d' you call that?" His voice went up and cracked at the question mark like a boy in his early teens.

Jeff stalked forward to Skeeter's side. "Jake, did you pull Skeeter?" he demanded sternly. "I'll swan if this ain't the belly-achiness bunch I ever seen! How about it, Jake? Did Skeeter do his durndest, or didn't he?

"Shore, he did!" Jake testified warmly. "I'da beat, too, if he hadn't stumbled right at the last. Didn't yuh see him purty near go down? And wasn't he within six inches of beatin'? I leave it to the crowd!"

The crowd was full of argument, and some bets were paid under protest. But they were paid, just the same. Burroback Valley insisted that the main points of racing law should be obeyed to the letter. Bud collected his winnings, the Scotch in him overlooking nothing whatever in the shape of a dollar. Then, under cover of getting his smoking material, he dared bring out Marian's note. There were two lines in a fine, even hand on a cigarette paper, and Bud, relieved at her cleverness, unfolded the paper and read while he opened his bag of tobacco. The lines were like those in an old-fashioned copy book:

"Winners may be losers. Empty pockets, safe owner."

And that was all. Bud sifted tobacco into the paper, rolled it into a cigarette and smoked it to so short a stub that he burnt his lips. Then he dropped it beside his foot and ground it into the sand while he talked.

He would run Smoky no more that day, he declared, but next Sunday he would give them all a chance to settle their minds and win back their losings, providing his horse's ankle didn't go bad again with to-day's running. Pop, Dave, Jeff and a few other wise ones examined the weak ankle and disagreed over the exact cause and nature of the weakness. It seemed all right. Smoky did not flinch from rubbing, though he did lift his foot away from strange hands. They questioned Bud, who could offer no positive information on the subject, except that once he and Smoky had rolled down a bluff together, and Smoky had been lame for a while afterwards.

It did not occur to anyone to ask Bud which leg had been lamed, and Bud did not volunteer the detail. An old sprain, they finally decided, and Bud replaced his saddle, got his chaps and coat from Jerry, who was smiling over an extra twenty-five dollars, and rode over to give the girls their winnings.

He stayed for several minutes talking with them and hoping for a chance to thank Marian for her friendly warning. But there was none, and he rode away dissatisfied and wondering uneasily if Marian thought he was really as friendly with Honey as that young lady made him appear to be.

He was one of the first to ride back to the ranch, and he turned Smoky in the pasture and caught up Stopper to ride with Honey, who said she was going for a ride when the races were over, and that if he liked to go along she would show him the Sinks. Bud had professed an eagerness to see the Sinks which he did not feel until Marian had turned her head toward Honey and said in her quiet voice:

"Why the Sinks? You know that isn't safe country to ride in, Honey."

"That's why I want to ride there," Honey retorted flippantly. "I hate safe places and safe things."

Marian had glanced at Bud--and it was that glance which he was remembering now with a puzzled sense that, like the note, it had meant something definite, something vital to his own welfare if he could only find the key. First it was Hen, then Jerry, and now Marian, all warning him vaguely of danger into which he might stumble if he were not careful.

Bud was no fool, but on the other hand he was not one to stampede easily. He had that steadfast courage, perhaps, which could face danger and still maintain his natural calm-- just as his mother had corrected grammatical slips in the very sentences which told her of an impending outbreak of Indians long ago Bud saddled Stopper and the horse which Honey was to ride, led them to the house and went inside to wait until the girl was ready. While he waited he played--and hoped that Marian, hearing, would know that he played for her; and that she would come and explain the cryptic message. Whether Marian heard and appreciated the music or not, she failed to appear and let him know. It seemed to him that she might easily have come into the room for a minute when she knew he was there, and let him have a chance to thank her and ask her just what she meant.

He was just finishing the Ave Maria which Marian had likened to a breath of cool air, when Honey appeared in riding skirt and light shirtwaist. She looked very trim and attractive, and Bud smiled upon her approvingly, and cut short the last strain by four beats, which was one way of letting Marian know that he considered her rather unappreciative.