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Sport O' Kings

From: Cow-country

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

"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

"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'

"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

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

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

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

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

"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

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

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

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.

Next: The Sinks

Previous: Guile Against The Wily

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