Author of "Glen Eyre," "Mates at Billabong" "A Little Bush Maid," "Timothy in Bushland," etc.
KENNY M'GRATH leaned against a post, with rage in his heart, and coughed. Before him the dawn came up softly over the racecourse; the sun hung, faintly golden, in a sea of tremulous pink. In its rays was scarcely life enough to turn to jewels the dewdrops on the spiders' webs that lay across the tussocks in a misty haze. Later, when that golden ball swung aloft, the day would be cloudless and hot; just now there was sufficient "bite" in the air to make the boys riding the sheeted thoroughbreds out to exercise button their coats across their narrow chests and turn up their collars. The nipping morning caught Denny. He shrugged himself further into his big overcoat and coughed again.
He was an undersized, thin youngster, with "jockey" written all over him; on the tightly-clad limbs, on the nervous hands, and, most of all, on his face, keen and watchful, yet redeemed from cunning by a pair of Irish grey eyes that were very honest. There were blue shadows beneath them now, and hollows under his cheekbones, where lay a hectic splash of red. It did not need the hard cough to tell you that things were not well with Denny M'Grath.
There was sullen resentment queerly mingled with pride in his eyes, as he looked across the turf at a knot of mounted men coming slowly in from the galloping track. Two were his own kind, sparely-built jockeys, on racehorses sweating after a hard run, a workmanlike black and a big brown horse with a white blaze. Before them, on a grey pony, came a little man whose hard, side-whiskered face spoke him plainly as a trainer, and with him a tall, loose-limbed fellow, sitting easily a dancing bay mare, eager for a gallop on her own account. Denny's eyes passed them lightly over, to dwell longingly on the big brown horse.
"See him, the beauty," he muttered, "shteppin' wid the pride that's in him, an' divil a hang he cares for the couple av miles he's done! Lave off jerking his head, Tom Patten, or I'll break y' neck, even if I am out av it all! Didn't he run well enough f'r you to respect him, y' misunderstandin' lump? An' himself as can't stand the laste taste av a heavy hand on his mouth! Look at him now!"—as the brown threw up his head impatiently. "If I cu'd get on him again f'r a fortnight, and lave me darned old lung to the pigs! There's never wan o' them'll know him like me, or——" The cough caught him again, and, when the paroxysm was over, he leaned against the post silently, panting a little.
Across the grass Harry Thornton gave his impatient bay mare her head, her quick hoofs scattering the dew as he cantered over to Denny. The jockey greeted him with a little smile.
"Well, it was good enough, Denny, my boy," Thornton said, swinging himself off. "You had the watch on him?"
"Good as gold; but I always knew it," he said. "'Tis a gift, bar accidents. I reckon it 'd be a gift if he had a stone more, instead av a weight that's nothing but an almighty joke to him. The black horse never had a look in, an' old Kincraig carryin' thirteen pounds more'n he'll have on Cup day! I'd say to put y'r boots on him, sir!"
Thornton laughed a trifle grimly.
"They're on," he said. "Anyhow, I won't have much left beyond them if he doesn't get home in front, Denny."
"He'll get home, don't you worry," Denny said. "I'd gamble me life on him, if 'twas worth anybody's wagerin' as much as a guinea-pig against it. It—it's not aisy f'r me to swallow not bringin' him home in front f'r you, sir."
"Ah, Denny, you know I'm sorry, old chap," said Thornton quickly. He put his hand for a moment on the boy's shoulder. "It's the worse bit of luck we could have had. Upon my soul, it aggravates me every time I see Patten on the old horse's back. Never mind, Denny; we'll have you fit and back into the saddle before next year's Cup."
"Not me," said Denny, smiling faintly. "I always knew I'd go like all the M'Graths, but I didn't care, so long as I hung on to ride Kincraig in the Cup. Well, one can't have everything. 'Twill be something to see, anyhow, an' Tommy Patten'll get his chance. He's a good boy, is Tommy, if he is a trifle heavy on the bit." He broke off, coughing, and Thornton watched him with troubled eyes.
Kincraig's bad luck was something of a proverb even in a notoriously unlucky stable. Beginning with excellent prospects as a two-year-old, he had been galloped on in his first race, and so badly knocked about as to throw him out of work altogether for the season. The enforced idleness had worked wonders, and his owner had entertained high hopes of the next year's Derby. Fate, however, had other views. Kincraig was a queer-tempered horse, and worked kindly for one rider only, Denny M'Grath, who adored him blindly, and was said almost to live in his box. But Denny fell ill, and another boy was put up to ride Kincraig in his work, the result of which was a bolt across country on a fine September morning, ending in an encounter with a barbed wire fence that left the Derby colt in such wise that Mat Gleeson, the trainer, hesitated over him, thinking a friendly bullet the easiest solution of his troubles. It was Denny who saved the big brown, a white-faced, eager-eyed Denny, pleading between paroxysms of the cough that had already laid the hand of doom upon him; alternately begging for a chance for his favourite, and reviling himself for being the unwitting cause of the accident. Gleeson had given in—people always gave in to Denny in the end—and Kincraig had lived in slings for a time, and completed his cure by another year's rest. Now, as a four-year-old, he was in perfect condition, fit as hands could make him; and whatever soreness yet lingered in Harry Thornton's heart over the Derby that had not come his way was considerably tempered by the feather weight allotted him in the Cups. Kincraig had annexed a couple of minor handicaps with ridiculous ease. The one dark cloud on the horizon lay in Denny himself.
There was no secret about Denny's health. Everyone knew—for he told everyone—that consumption made short work of the M'Graths. Everyone knew, too, that the work in Denny's case was likely to be shorter than usual, and that he cared very little so long as he might ride Kincraig to victory in the Melbourne Cup. Denny was not one to pull a long face at anything. He was quite prepared to meet death, as he met life throughout, with a joke, so long as it left him Kincraig's Cup. Then, two days before the Caulfield Cup, had come the hæmorrhage that left him a limp rag, chafing furiously in the hospital, while Kincraig had chafed and fumed in Patten's hands, refusing absolutely to be a trier in the big race.
The big brown had shaken down to a grudging acquiescence in his new rider's methods, when Denny crawled out a week later, shaken and pinched, with the doctor's absolute veto against riding making anything but music in his ears. There was no reason any more for the daily and nightly vision that had been his for three years—of a crowded field, a two-mile run, and Kincraig under him, coming away from them all at the finish. It was only a dream, and he had awakened now.
He moved away from Thornton as the horses came up, and went to meet Kincraig. Patten slipped to the ground, grinning. He was only human and a jockey, and Denny's loss was his gain, and he knew his mount had just accomplished something rather special in the way of Cup trials. There was some justification for his grin. Denny returned it readily enough, and his light "Good f'r y', me son!" bore not a trace of resentment.
Kincraig had sidled fretfully away as Patten laid his hand on the girth, but he steadied at Denny's voice, and nuzzled gently at his pocket in search of the lump of sugar that never failed him. He put his nose into the Irish boy's hand confidently and rubbed against him, while Denny talked to him, too low to be heard. He must give him up, but he was too shy of anyone knowing what he and Kincraig had to say to each other, especially Tom Patten, who had a hand like a half-brick on a horse's mouth, and so could not be expected to have comprehension. The brown horse stood quietly while he was rubbed down, seeming not to notice the strange hand while Denny was at his side; but when Gleeson called the jockey away, Kincraig immediately became restive, and the remainder of the operation was not an easy one. Patten remounted at length and rode sulkily away.
"Well, Denny," the trainer said, "there's only one thing wrong about this Cup, I guess, and that is that you won't have on the colours."
Denny seemed to shrink further into his big overcoat.
"We won't be talkin' about it," he said. "Sure, if they come home in front, it 'ud ought to be enough f'r any wan av us!"
There was a little crowd in the saddling paddock about Kincraig's box, a knot of the knowing ones, who had wind of the trial the unlucky brown horse had run, augmented by a number of the curious, who do not know anything at all, but who regard every Cup horse as meet food for inspection and sapient comment. Kincraig himself was restless, and regarded his admirers with an unfriendly eye. While being walked round, he had done his best to account for one permanently with a quick lash of his heels, and possibly failure was weighing on his spirits. Denny M'Grath, coming up, laid a sympathetic hand on his neck, and the horse rubbed his head against the sleeve of the boy's immaculate coat and quietened down. Denny looked better; rest and open-air life had given him a healthier colour, and his hard cough did not come so often. He looked at his four-footed mate miserably.
"I cu'd do it! " he said very low. "You'n me cu'd do it together, old man. Divil take that interferin' omadhaun av a doctor—an' Tom Patten, too!"
Gleeson came into the box hurriedly.
"Denny, I wish you'd find Tom and hurry him up," he said irritably. The strain on the trainer's nerves is fairly acute during the last hour before the Cup. "He's gone to weigh some time ago—ought to be back by this." He dropped his voice. "You know he's such a fool, and I don't like that crowd of Witchery's. Ours is the only horse they're frightened of, and I don't believe they'd stick at much. Hurry along, my boy!"
Denny nodded and was gone, threading his way swiftly among the crowd. A curt inquiry within the jockeys' room revealed no Patten. Most of the lads had dressed and gone, and none of those remaining knew anything of Kincraig's jockey's whereabouts. The sole trace of him was a leather bag, placed carefully under a seat, which Denny noticed as he turned to go. He pounced on it and opened it. There was the riding gear which at present should be gracing Mr. Patten—boots, breeches, and colours, all complete. The question remained—where was Mr. Patten himself?
It was after five minutes of breathless search that Denny ran his quarry to earth. On the floor in the casualty room Mr. Patten snored serenely, his heavy head pillowed on his saddle. To Denny's shaking, which at first was merely hurried, but rapidly became furious, he gave no response, save that, if anything, his snores became deeper. A mingled odour of strong drink hung about him, with something heavier that was not very difficult to locate. Denny straightened himself at last.
"They've doctored him, the brutes!" he groaned. "Poor old Tom! An' it was his chance! What'll we do now, at all?" And, even with the question, the answer came to him, and for a moment he stood transfixed. Then he said "Blessed hour!" very softly, and, turning, ran.
Mr. Gleeson had time to work himself into something approaching frenzy before he saw the familiar scarlet-and-white jacket threading its way towards him. He uttered an exclamation of relief, and immediately composed a fine effort of rhetoric to be hurled at the tardy delinquent. It died upon his tongue as he caught sight of the jockey's face.
"Denny," he said weakly, "what the——"
"'Tis all right," said Denny briskly, adjusting girths rapidly. "They've laid out poor old Tom wid a dose of some divilment, so it's up to me, I guess."
"You!" said the trainer. "Does Thornton know? I've sent him hunting for Tom, too. He doesn't? Well, I can't let you ride, Denny."
"You can't?" said Denny furiously. "Can't? Then who'll y' be puttin' up, tell me? An' the horses goin' out this minnit! We're late as it is. Just you let down that stirrup two holes, an' don't be talkin'!"
There came a quick step, and Harry Thornton dived under the rail.
"It's all up, Mat," he said. "Tom's laid out—hocussed." He bit off a strong word, catching sight of the gay jacket. "Good Heavens, Denny—you!"
"'M!" said Denny. He slipped the bridle upon Kincraig's head. "It's up to me, sir."
"You can't do it, Denny. The doctor——"
"Och, to blazes wid the doctor!" said Denny cheerfully. "Don't talk doctors to me! I wouldn't give a hoof av Kincraig for a paddock full av 'em! Don't you be worryin', sir. I'll bring him home f'r y'."
"I'd sooner lose fifty Cups," said Thornton. "It might kill you, Denny. No good, old chap! It's just' on a piece with the rest of Kincraig's luck!"
"It's the best bit av luck he's had, then!" Denny cried. "Y' couldn't ever be sure av him goin' kind wid that hand of Tom's on him—sure, it weighs like a lump av lead, so 't does! An' I'm fit as ever I was! D'y' think I don't know? Y' can't stop me! He's me own horse, if ever a horse was!"
"That he is," said Thornton soothingly; "we all know that, Denny. But I won't risk you; it wouldn't be safe. I'll go and scratch him."
"If y' do——" Denny cried. His voice rose almost to a scream as he faced Thornton, his eyes blazing in his white face. "There's Dawes over there wid his mare. He's sending her out wid little Levy on her, 'cause he can't get no other jockey. He'd jump at the chance of me. I swear I'll ride her if y' scratch Kincraig!"
"Don't be a fool!" Thornton said curtly, his own voice shaking. "I can't do it, Denny. Do you think I want to kill you?"
"Me?" said Denny. His voice had grown calm, except for the self-contempt it held. "Me, and I'm booked to die, anyhow! I'd do it aisy, too, if I had this one ride. Haven't I dreamed av it since he was a foal? If y' want to kill me now, y'll do it if y' stop me—I couldn't live if y' took me chance! Let me——" He broke off and, with a mighty effort of will, choked back the cough that tried to rend him.
"Heavens, but it's true!" Gleeson said. "I do believe you'll kill him if you disappoint him now. Best let him go, sir."
At the first hint of hesitation, Denny had run Kincraig out of the box. For a moment Thornton wavered, then he moved forward to check him. But Denny was too quick for him.
"Hurry!" he said breathlessly. He held a booted leg to a bystander, and the man, gaping, tossed him into the saddle. There was a scatter of badly frightened people as the big thoroughbred shot down the saddling paddock and under the pines. The gate clanged after him.
Thornton looked at his trainer weakly.
"If it hurts him," he said wretchedly, "I'd never forgive myself, Mat."
"I dunno," said the trainer reflectively. "There's some of us glad of a chance to die like a man, not a log. Things are pretty rough on Denny."
But, out in the straight, the whole world sang to Denny just then. The joy of living had come back to him. It laughed in the blue sky and the warm air, heavy with the scent of roses; in the myriad tints of the women's dresses on the crowded lawn, and the black mass on the flat that took up Kincraig's name as he steadied him past the stands. He had never felt so well, so strong. Sickness was a thing forgotten; all that was worth remembering was that he was on Kincraig, and this was the Cup—Kincraig's Cup. He took the big brown by the head, and they flashed by in their preliminary. Ah, but it was good to feel the old horse moving under him again! And Kincraig knew, too; he felt it in the ripple of every powerful muscle, in the pride of each stride. If for but once, it was worth dying to be together again!
He caught a glimpse of his master's anxious face as he passed the lawn again, Kincraig reefing happily, rejoicing at the light hand that gave to the strain on the bit. Denny laughed, waving gaily. It was so ridiculous to think that they were actually worrying about him when he was having the time of his life! Then he suddenly realised that he was late, and he trotted up the straight to the starting-gate.
If you have not known it, there is nothing that can quite bring it home to you—that tense, strained moment, when a hundred thousand voices are hushed, a hundred thousand faces turned towards the shifting line of dim colours that forms across the green ribbon of the course as the gate goes down. Now and then a voice breaks out insistently with a name; there is a ripple of impatience when the dust from the restless hoofs drifts into a cloud, for a moment blotting out the view. It is a moment that seems an hour. Then the line condenses suddenly, the voices, released, ring out. The bell, clanging that the field is off, strikes as an anti-climax.
But Denny knew nothing of that. His whole mind had lain on steadying Kincraig to the barrier, and getting away well as he rose. It was, perhaps, lucky for him that the start was a quick one. He was scarcely in line before the gate flew up, and he realised that they were off. Then—for the big brown was fighting for his head—he found his work cut out for him. Nor did he gain control by sheer strength—that, indeed, he lacked. It was to his voice Kincraig finally responded, settling into his stride.
The lawn and stands flashed by, a gay kaleidoscope of colour. He saw it dimly, all his soul fixed on the turn ahead, where so much ground may be lost in swinging with a big field. They were jostling round him, and Kincraig held his own; and presently they were going along the back of the course, running easily with the first dozen. Near him was Witchery's lean chestnut head, and once he caught sight of her rider's face, keenly curious. Then he realised that he must look nowhere, think of nothing but Kincraig. This was not play; even the glamour of those first few moments had faded. He knew now that to ride in such a race was work indeed.
They rounded another turn. Something bumped him as he swung, and just for a moment he had a sick fear that Kincraig was going to fail in his stride; but it passed, and he knew that his horse was going under him like a lion. He began to feel that his chance was indeed good, if he himself could but last out. Could he? It was only for a moment that he permitted himself the question. Then he gave a sudden little laugh that sounded queerly enough in the press. They came round for the last time. The straight lay clear before them.
Yet not quite clear. Even as his heart leaped exultantly, the way closed up. At his side Witchery was boring him into the rail; ahead, two horses he could not name blocked him. He had a sudden desperate vision of being "pocketed" in the straight, like so many good horses in a big race. He shouted angrily at Witchery's rider. Then, just for a moment, the way opened before him, and he took Kincraig by the head and shot him through. It was the distance post, and they were leading the field!
And then, quite suddenly, he knew that he was very tired.
He sat perfectly still, afraid to move. Something was at his girths, at his horse's shoulder; then it dropped back, and he was again alone. There came into his mouth a bitter taste that he knew. He could not spare a hand to wipe away the thin, bright stream that presently trickled across his parted lips and down his jacket, more scarlet than the silk it stained. Beyond came a confused sound of shouting; he heard a thousand voices that echoed his horse's name, "Kincraig!" Then came another sharper cry: "Witchery!"
The lean head crept up beside him—up and up, till it drew level; and still he sat motionless, a queer buzzing in his ears that left him so weary that nothing seemed to matter. Beside him Witchery's jockey was flogging madly. His own whip dangled idly from his wrist. But then Kincraig never liked the whip—his voice was always enough. The thought seemed to recall him to himself. But Witchery was forging ahead, and the post was very near. Already there was but one name on all the shouting tongues. He took up his own horse again. "Kincraig!" he cried, and suddenly lifted him forward. The brown horse answered to the call as though he were fresh. There was a moment's struggle—a white streak on a black ground that flitted past.
He did not know that he had won until someone—a kind-faced lad on a bay—had helped him pull up. The field was all round him then. There were curious eyes on the grim stains on his face and jacket and even on Kincraig's glossy shoulder, where the stream had trickled from his lips. The news brought him to himself a little. He squared his shoulders as he rode back to the tumult—even tried to lift his cap as the applause came in a deafening tide. But his hand fell back limply.
Somehow—nothing was very clear—he got to the scales. There did not seem anything to trouble about but the horrible weariness that chained him. He had a moment's vision of the cool, dim hospital ward—it seemed infinitely restful, infinitely desirable. Then, out of the blackness wrapping him about, a voice said "All right!" and he reeled off the scales into Thornton's arms.
The vision had materialised when he opened his eyes. The ward was spacious, and the light trickled in through shaded windows. He was very peaceful and altogether weary. Someone was holding his hand. It was a little while before he raised his heavy eyes to see Thornton. A nurse held something to his lips quickly.
"Well, sir," he said, "we done it." Something of the old ring came back to his voice.
"Denny!" Thornton said brokenly. "Denny!"
"Don't go worryin'," Denny said. He smiled faintly, feeling his strength come back to him a little. "It's the finish, I hope," he said.
"I—I'm afraid so, Denny, lad."
"Don't y' dare be afraid," said Denny. "If y' only knew! I was always thinkin' about it, back in me heart—the months and months av slow dying! An' to think I've got this!"
He lay very still, watching the sunlight.
"The old horse," he said—"he's all right?"
"Fit as possible," Thornton told him. "They say they never saw such a Cup as yours, Denny—the way you rode him."
"Do they, now?" Denny asked, with a little flash of pleasure. He smiled. "Much they know—'twasn't me at all. Truly, sir, I didn't know much about it—'twas the old horse. Tell—tell Tom to go aisy on his mouth."
"I'll tell him. They—they all sent you their love, Denny. And I brought you this."
He took from the table a photograph and held it where the boy could see. The light came back into Denny's eyes as he looked.
"Now," he said, "I do think not anywan would have thought av that but you, sir! The beauty he is—the beauty! Did y' ever see such a horse wid the natural pride av him! Bless him!" He lifted a weak hand for the photograph, but the effort to hold it was too much, and Thornton propped it where he could see the light on Kincraig's mighty muscles. He murmured happily, half inaudibly.
"Put it with me, won't y', sir?" he asked once. "An' don't you go worryin'. Think av me luck. You'd die fightin' y'self, if y' had the choice, I bet."
His eyes closed, and so softly came the breathing that Thornton thought he was gone. But he started suddenly.
"They're blocking me!" he cried wildly. "Ah, they've got me jammed on the rails! Give a fellow room, can't you? Run fair! It's Witchery! Take her away! She's trying to block me, an' we've got to win! Ah-h-h!" The long sigh was the end of the convulsive effort, and suddenly peace came over his face. "Come up, old horse!" he said very gently. He smiled, and shut his eyes.
Copyright, 1911, by Little, Brown d; Co., in the United States of America.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1958, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 65 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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