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|The Race of the Shoestring Gamblers
"Judge not too idly that our toils are mean,
Though no new levies marshall on our green;
Nor deem too rashly that our gains are small,
Weighed with the prizes for which heroes fall."
- Bret Harte.
If dancing was the first form of amusement to emanate from prehistoric savagery, then racing must surely have come next. It may possibly have come first. However, we shall leave the "theorizin"' to be settled by the lips of the first mummy whose centuries-old tissues shall be roused to full life by modern science. What has science not achieved? We have gone beyond wonder. We can only believe, and become blase!
Meantime there is still enough red blood in the modern effete productions of humans to enjoy a contest of stress and strain, and brain and brawn, and to gamble upon the outcome.
In the '49 days, racing was one of the most popular forms of chance, and it often reverted in bizarre tangents. This, then, is what happened at a golden fiesta during the week of races:
"Sweet Lady, are all my importunities to be in vain?"
"I must confess that I can not bring my mind to a decision, Mr. Saul," answered Mistress Patty Laughton, blushing and curtsying prettily.
"It is surely not for your lack of worldly goods that you hesitate," persisted Slick-heels Saul. "As for what your father is owing me, it shall, at the moment of your acceptance, be wiped entirely from the books."
Patty was incensed at the hint of insolence in the gambler's allusion to her improvident father's financial condition.
"Believe me, Mr. Saul," she said, with spirit, "no ulterior motive for worldly advancement has the power to coerce my afflections."
"But you will consider my proposition of marriage?"
Patty's honest gaze encountered the appraising glint in the coot grey eyes of the foppish scape-grace before her. She lowered her own eys quickly to hid a hunted look in their dark depths as she answered:
"Sir, after the week of races, you shall have your answer."
"And then I shall give up my present means of gaining a livelihood, and, repairing to San Francisco, shall enter into a profession more fitting the social station of the lady who is to become my wife." He bowed deeply and withdrew, leaving Patty with a sad face and tearfilled eyes.
At last she straightened her tall figure resolutely. "I must not give way to tears. I can not! I will not! There must be some way to pay my father's debts beside this extremity, to which death is almost preferable. There is still a week's time. A week - only a week." Panic overwhelmed her, and when someone gently took her hand, she cried aloud in terror.
"Why, Sweetheart, do I frighten you so? I waited long upon the mesa near the speed-track at the spot we had agreed upon, and when you did not come I fared forth to meet you."
"Eric, it is Saul again. What can I do?"
"Dear, I have about $2000 which I am resolved to play on the races. I will win. I must. Old Irish Mike has brought over his whole stableful of saddle horses and I was raised in Kentucky. Do not despair, we shall beat the gambler at his own game. Here is Mike, now. Perhaps - Mike, it's a fine string of horses you've picked up.
"It is so. Many a thoroughbred I've bought that came all the way from Kentucky or Missouri. All that had the stamina to get to Californy, the one thing left that many of the poor devils could sell when they reached the coast."
"Mike, some of them are faster than others, I suppose."
"'Tis what half the shoe-string gamblers in the camp have tried to find out. I may have me own opinion, but it's to meself I'll kape it till afther the races are run. I will not spile sport. Have ye seen the last cayuse that's bein' put in?
"You mean the cow pony that came in with the bunch of cattle from the Napa Valley yesterday?"
"The same. The auld boy, whilst in his cups, is bettin' she can beat anythin' on four legs, even jack rabbits an' antelope. The precious gamblin' riff-raff are fillin' him up with tanglefoot, proper."
"Why, Mike?" Mike glanced at the silent girl and then down into the gulch below.
"Miss Patty, have ye visited the claims?"
"No, but I should like to."
"Come, then, if ye will so pleasure an old man. The men will not be workin' tomorrow. They will be that pleased to show a lady how to wash a pan o' dirt, they will be saltin' ivery pan wit' nuggets for ye! Eric, lad," he called back to the tall young man, "ye might look the cow horse over. She has not been curried for long; yet, whisper, beauty is but skin deep an' the finest rapier is often encased in a rusty scabbard."
"There is something going forward that Mike wishes me to see," though Eric, as he hurried off to the livery stable. "That is why he took Patty away."
A crowd of gamblers were just putting up a pair of riders on two horses.
"Hey, Eric Tallman, you used to own this horse. Can he beat this rat-tailed kyoodle that runs after steers?"
Eric laid a hand fondly on the magnificent black "half breed," who had just enough mustang to give him the stamina and spirit and wildness characteristic of the Spanish-bred horse.
"Keep him on a steady rein and he'll beat anything in the mountains. I'd never have sold him except - ." He sighed, turning to the cattle horse. She was long necked, long legged, long haired, wall-eyed, lean, and badly in need of currying, and yet Irish Mike was no fool, and Mike knew Eric's extremity - his and the girl's whom he loved.
He noted the deep, broad chest, the tapering barrel and the tremendous driving power in the steel muscles of the hind quarters, but she drooped, spiritless. He turned again to the satin-coated half-breed.
"Any dust up yet?"
"Ye-aw, about ten thousand. Old fool seems to be well heeled. We've got 'im full to the eyes, down at String-halt Eddie's place, an' the boys are goin' to try the plugs out before they put up any more." Two trial races were ridden and the sad cow horse was outrun with apparent ease.
The next morning as Patty went on her daily stroll to "take the air," her way was blocked by a clamoring crowd of undesirables who were baiting a miserable old cattle man.
"I tell ye, gentlemen, I was indisposed. 'Twas the liquor talking. Surely you would not take advantage of a poor old man and his honest, hard-working little mount. Every day of her life she works. Gentlemen, I beg you - "
"Begging will get you nothing better than a good drubbing, you filthy cattle lout! If you don't pay up your bets, we'll take it out of your hide. I, for one, have a special use for my money at the week's end."
It was Slick-heels Saul. Patty turned aside, sick at heart. This was the creature in whose power she was "like to fall."
Upon her return she found the old cowboy sitting dejectedly under a liveoak bush. "Sir," she began timidly, "you are in trouble. I should like to express my sympathy."
He rose with suspicious nimbleness. "Now, bless your kind heart, Miss, to stop to console a sad old man."
"I overheard what Mr. Saul said to you, sir. He is - "
"Without doubt, without doubt, he is everything you mention. Could you, now, be Mistress Patty Laughton, of Kentucky?"
"I knew your Grandfather Laughton, my child, and since I came here I have heard-of you," he finished, with innate delicacy. Indeed, who had not heard her story?
She opened her silken reticule and drew forth a small, buckskin bag. "Will you not accept it?" Yesterday, at the claims, I panned it out myself. I am sorry for your plight. I am sorry for anyone in the clutches of Slick-heels Saul."
"But - . Can you - ?"
"It does not matter. Your extremity is greater than mine."
He stood looking after the slim girl who carried her head so high. "How like a Kentucky Laughton. Thoroughbred stock, all!" He tossed the bag in his hand. "'Tis why they are where they are today." Then his keen old eyes softened. "And why they are what they are, today. Bless her tender heart to stoop to an old cattle man in the mire. As for this - I must see Irish Mike," and he hurried off with surprising speed.
Bets rose. Every gambler had been apprised of the sure thing and flocked to the betting like bears to a honey tree.
"Have ye put up ye'r money, Eric?" asked Irish Mike, late the next night.
"Yes," said Eric, briefly.
"Ah. So." Mike's shrewd gave slid from the young man's face.
"They do say that Slick-heels Saul is beginnin' to worry over the $20,000 he's staked. The shoestring gang have gathered in the information fr'm th' express agent that the auld cattle man owns a big Spanish grant down in the valley, and has $50,00 to his credit in certificates of deposit from the express company. 'Tis as good as gold."
"Mike, have you ever seen him before?"
"I never spile sport, me boy."
It was the last day of the fiesta and the famous race was at hand.
"There is the old cattle man with his vaqueros."
"Faith, they're a tough lookin' lot, all armed with a brace o' Colts apiece. 'Tis fun they'd have, cleanin' out a Fandango House."
"Patty, girl, you are pale today."
"Oh, Eric, 'tis the last day of grace. Heaven help us if - "
"See, Patty, gir-r-rl, they're fixin' for the foot race between Cherokee Bob an' that Australian squirt fr'm Sacramento."
"Why are they placing men with guns every ten feet along the track?"
"The Indian can beat the Australian, but he thried to sell the boys out, an' if he slackens his gait by ever so little, the b'ys will begin shootin' sthraight before them. An' maybe afther the race, he'd better be runnin' right on into the next county."
"Next is a jackass fight, an' then, the race!"
After the billigerent jacks had been led away, Red Pete suddenly took to the brush, accelerated by a fusillade of bullets.
"Welchin' his bets, he is, an' ivery man he owes is lettin' him have it."
"Nary a hit!" wailed old Jack Horner. "The shootin' in this camp is a-gittin' vile! Time we was quittin so d - much pick handlin, an' a-practicin' up. It's a reflection on the community. Why, there ain't been a Chinaman drilled with a bullet decent an' clean for weeks!"
"They're leading out the horses! Where did that little nigger jockey come from? The mare's got more ginger today."
"Eric, surely your horse can win!"
"I don't know, dear."
"He must! He must, or - "
"Slick-heels Saul's face is turnin' the color of me native isle," chuckled Irish Mike. "Patty, me little ladybird, 'tis no time to be faintin'!"
"Oh, you can't know - "
"Faith, an' I know more than you t'ink. Bear up, Asthore, the darkest hour is just forninst the dawn. Whisht, now! They're off!"
"Here they come! The black is ahead! See, the nigger is lying flat on the mare's neck. She's closing up! Oh, they are neck and neck! I cannot look. Eric - The black is getting the whip. Good horse! They are even again! Ah, it is only for a moment. The mare ... is over the line, first ... It is all ended, life, love, honor, happiness ... I cannot belong to that man! My poor old father. Dear old ... for his sake, I must. I - "
"Eric, you are not to blame. You would wager on your own horse. 'Tis but natural. I must accept my fate with what fortitude I can summon. Please take me home. All the people staring. I cannot bear it long."
But when Slick-heels Saul pressed forward to her side at the boarding-house steps, she was as stately and cold as the snow-hooded rocks of Granite Mountain.
"I have lost everything, but still I hold you to your promise."
"I made no promise, sir," she said haughtily.
"'But you will," he answered meaningly, "tomorrow."
"Stand aside!" thundered Eric.
"Come awn," soothed Irish Mike. "Not with the lady here, Eric, b'y."
"Patty, I cannot let you go! I will shoot the beast on sight."
"That would not vindicate my father's honor. Hush, he is coming. I must remember that I am a Laughton."
Eric turned to stare moodily out the dusty window. "There goes the cattle man with his followers and his strong-box. What he must have won! Here comes Mike. In a hurry, too! I wonder - "
Slick-heels Saul was bowing before the girl.
"Forgive an auld Irishman for intrudin' upon so tender a scene - " (Slick-heels glared at him malevolently), "but I have he-e-re a something for Mistress Patty Laughton," pretending to read the inscription on the package he held out, "from the auld boy, there, who is just leavin' us."
"'Bread cast upon the waters of sweet charity shall be returned an hundred fold. Blessed are the pure in heart for they are of the children of God,' he has written. Why, it is money!" gasped Patty, "and such a large amount!"
"He had me put up ye'r little bag o' gold on his mare. These are y'er winnings." Mike smiled inwardly at the sum of money. "Sure, auld Andy must have put a rock or two in the wee buckskin bag," he thought, but aloud he said , "I never spile sport, an' I could not tell ye before, but 'tis auld Andy Magee an' his famous racin' mare, the fastest quarter mile horse bechune the state of Missouri and the Pacific ocean.
"'Tis the same game he's pulled on the gamblin' crooks all the way from the Oregon line to Mariposa in the south. Even gettin' filled wit' tanglefoot is part of the dodge. They cannot touch him an' the vaqueros protect him fr'm the shootin'."
"But what about the tryout?"
"Also in the schame. The mare was cross-shod; meanin', two of her shoes, the near front, an' the off hind wans, were twice as heavy as the others She could not run top speed in th'm f'r love nor gold. Yesterday she was shod in light racin' pads, an' under her own jockey. No horse on the coast could catch her. An' always, the smart racin' gamblers play th' auld man for a fool. Such is often the end of greed.
"Pay up the dad's gamblin' debts, an' bid this Knight o 'the Green Cloth a swate an' long fare-ye-well. Then go an' be happy, me child."