It was a hard jolt for me, one of the most bitterest I ever had to face. And it all came about through my own foolishness too. Even yet sometimes, when I think of it, I want to cry or swear or kick myself. Perhaps, even now, after all this time, there will be a kind of satisfaction in making myself look cheap by telling of it.
It began at three o’clock one October afternoon as I sat in the grandstand at the fall trotting and pacing meet at Sandusky, Ohio.
To tell the truth, I felt a little foolish that I should be sitting in the grandstand at all. During the summer before I had left my home town with Harry Whitehead and, with a nigger named Burt, had taken a job as swipe with one of the two horses Harry was campaigning through the fall race meets that year. Mother cried and my sister Mildred, who wanted to get a job as a school teacher in our town that fall, stormed and scolded about the house all during the week before I left. They both thought it something disgraceful that one of our family should take a place as a swipe with race horses. I’ve an idea Mildred thought my taking the place would stand in the way of her getting the job she’d been working so long for.
But after all I had to work, and there was no other work to be got. A big lumbering fellow of nineteen couldn’t just hang around the house and I had got too big to mow people’s lawns and sell newspapers. Little chaps who could get next to people’s sympathies by their sizes were always getting jobs away from me. There was one fellow who kept saying to everyone who wanted a lawn mowed or a cistern cleaned, that he was saving money to work his way through college, and I used to lay awake nights thinking up ways to injure him without being found out. I kept thinking of wagons running over him and bricks falling on his head as he walked along the street. But never mind him.
I got the place with Harry and I liked Burt fine. We got along splendid together. He was a big nigger with a lazy sprawling body and soft, kind eyes, and when it came to a fight he could hit like Jack Johnson. He had Bucephalus, a big black pacing stallion that could do 2. 09 or 2. 10, if he had to, and I had a little gelding named Doctor Fritz that never lost a race all fall when Harry wanted him to win.
We set out from home late in July in a box car with the two horses and after that, until late November, we kept moving along to the race meets and the fairs. It was a peachy time for me, I’ll say that. Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.
But I did. Burt taught me how to rub down a horse and put the bandages on after a race and steam a horse out and a lot of valuable things for any man to know. He could wrap a bandage on a horse’s leg so smooth that if it had been the same color you would think it was his skin, and I guess he’d have been a big driver, too, and got to the top like Murphy and Walter Cox and the others if he hadn’t been black.
Gee whizz, it was fun. You got to a county seat town, maybe say on a Saturday or Sunday, and the fair began the next Tuesday and lasted until Friday afternoon. Doctor Fritz would be, say, in the 2. 25 trot on Tuesday afternoon and on Thursday afternoon Bucephalus would knock ‘em cold in the “free-for-all” pace. It left you a lot of time to hang around and listen to horse talk, and see Burt knock some yap cold that got too gay, and you’d find out about horses and men and pick up a lot of stuff you could use all the rest of your life, if you had some sense and salted down what you heard and felt and saw.
And then at the end of the week when the race meet was over, and Harry had run home to tend up to his livery-stable business, you and Burt hitched the two horses to carts and drove slow and steady across country to the place for the next meeting, so as to not overheat the horses, etc. , etc. , you know.
Gee whizz, gosh amighty, the nice hickorynut and beechnut and oaks and other kinds of trees along the roads, all brown and red, and the good smells, and Burt singing a song that was called “Deep River,” and the country girls at the windows of houses and everything. You can stick your colleges up your nose for all me. I guess I know where I got my education.
Why, one of those little burgs of towns you come to on the way, say now on a Saturday afternoon, and Burt says, “Let’s lay up here.” And you did.
And you took the horses to a livery stable and fed them, and you got your good clothes out of a box and put them on.
And the town was full of farmers gaping, because they could see you were racehorse people, and the kids maybe never see a nigger before and was afraid and run away when the two of us walked down their main street.
And that was before prohibition and all that foolishness, and so you went into a saloon, the two of you, and all the yaps come and stood around, and there was always someone pretended he was horsey and knew things and spoke up and began asking questions, and all you did was to lie and lie all you could about what horses you had, and I said I owned them, and then some fellow said “Will you have a drink of whiskey” and Burt knocked his eye out the way he could say, offhand like, “Oh well, all right, I’m agreeable to a little nip. I’ll split a quart with you.” Gee whizz.
But that isn’t what I want to tell my story about. We got home late in November and I promised mother I’d quit the race horses for good. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to promise a mother because she don’t know any better.
And so, there not being any work in our town any more than when I left there to go to the races, I went off to Sandusky and got a pretty good place taking care of horses for a man who owned a teaming and delivery and storage and coal and real-estate business there. It was a pretty good place with good eats, and a day off each week, and sleeping on a cot in a big barn, and mostly just shovelling in hay and oats to a lot of big good-enough skates of horses, that couldn’t have trotted a race with a toad. I wasn’t dissatisfied and I could send money home.
And then, as I started to tell you, the fall races come to Sandusky and I got the day off and I went. I left the job at noon and had on my good clothes and my new brown derby hat, I’d just bought the Saturday before, and a stand-up collar.
First of all I went downtown and walked about with the dudes. I’ve always thought to myself, “Put up a good front” and so I did it. I had forty dollars in my pocket and so I went into the West House, a big hotel, and walked up to the cigar stand.”Give me three twenty-five cent cigars, ” I said. There was a lot of horsemen and strangers and dressed-up people from other towns standing around in the lobby and in the bar, and I mingled amongst them. In the bar there was a fellow with a cane and a Windsor tie on, that it made me sick to look at him. I like a man to be a man and dressed up, but not to go put on that kind of airs. So I pushed him aside, kind of rough, and had me a drink of whiskey. And then he looked at me, as though he thought maybe he’d get gay, but he changed his mind and didn’t say anything. And then I had another whiskey, just to show him something, and went out and had a hack out to the races, all to myself, and when I got there I bought myself the best seat I could get up in the grand stand, but didn’t go in for any of these boxes. That’s putting on too many airs.
And so there I was, sitting up in the grand stand as gay as you please and looking down on the swipes coming out with their horses, and with their dirty horsy pants on and the horse blankets swung over their shoulders, same as I had been doing all the year before. I liked one thing about the same as the other, sitting up there and feeling grand and being down there and looking up at the yaps and feeling grander and more important too.
One thing’s about as good as another, if you take it just right. I’ve often said that.
Well, right in front of me, in the grandstand that day, there was a fellow with a couple of girls and they was about my age. The young fellow was a nice guy, all right. He was the kind maybe that goes to college and then comes to be a lawyer or maybe a newspaper editor or something like that, but he wasn’t stuck on himself. There are some of that kind are all right and he was one of the ones.
He had his sister with him and another girl and the sister looked around over his shoulder, accidental at first, not intending to start anything—she wasn’t that kind—and her eyes and mine happened to meet.
You know how it is. Gee, she was a peach! She had on a soft dress, kind of a blue stuff and it looked carelessly made, but was well sewed and made and everything. I knew that much. I blushed when she looked right at me and so did she. She was the nicest girl I’ve ever seen in my life. She wasn’t stuck on herself and she could talk proper grammar without being like a school teacher or something like that. What I mean is, she was O. K. I think maybe her father was well-to-do, but not rich to make her chesty because she was his daughter, as some are. Maybe he owned a drug store or a drygoods store in their home town, or something like that. She never told me and I never asked.
My own people are all O. K. too, when you come to that. My grandfather was Welsh and over in the old country, in Wales he was—but never mind that.
The first heat of the first race come off and the young fellow setting there with the two girls left them and went down to make a bet. I knew what he was up to, but he didn’t talk big and noisy and let everyone around know he was a sport as some do. He wasn’t that kind. Well, he come back and I heard him tell the two girls what horse he’d bet on, and when the heat was trotted they all half got to their feet and acted in the excited, sweaty way people do when they’ve got money down on a race, and the horse they bet on is up there pretty close at the end, and they think maybe he’ll come on with a rush, but he never does because he hasn’t got the old juice in him, come right down to it.
And then, pretty soon, the horses came out for the 2. 18 pace and there was a horse in it I knew. He was a horse Bob French had in his string but Bob didn’t own him. He was a horse owned by a Mr. Mathers down at Marietta, Ohio.
This Mr. Mathers had a lot of money and owned some coal mines or something and he had a swell place out in the country, and he was stuck on race horses, but was a Presbyterian or something, and I think more than likely his wife was one too, maybe a stiffer one than himself. So he never raced his horses hisself, and the story round the Ohio race tracks was that when one of his horses got ready to go to the races he turned him over to Bob French and pretended to his wife he was sold.
So Bob had the horses and he did pretty much as he pleased and you can’t blame Bob, at least, I never did. Sometimes he was out to win and sometimes he wasn’t. I never cared much about that when I was swiping a horse. What I did want to know was that my horse had the speed and could go out in front if you wanted him to.
And, as I’m telling you, there was Bob in this race with one of Mr. Mathers’ horses, was named About Ben Ahem or something like that, and was fast as a streak. He was a gelding and had a mark of 2. 21, but could step in . 08 or . 09.
Because when Burt and I were out, as I’ve told you, the year before, there was a nigger Burt knew, worked for Mr. Mathers, and we went out there one day when we didn’t have no race on at the Marietta Fair and our boss Harry was gone home.
And so everyone was gone to the fair but just this one nigger and he took us all through Mr. Mathers’ swell house and he and Burt tapped a bottle of wine Mr. Mathers had hid in his bedroom, back in a closet, without his wife knowing, and he showed us this Ahem horse. Burt was always stuck on being a driver but didn’t have much chance to get to the top, being a nigger, and he and the other nigger gulped that whole bottle of wine and Burt got a little lit up.
So the nigger let Burt take this About Ben Ahem and step him a mile in a track Mr. Mathers had all to himself, right there on the farm. And Mr. Mathers had one child, a daughter, kinda sick and not very good looking, and she came home and we had to hustle and get About Ben Ahem stuck back in the barn.
I’m only telling you to get everything straight. At Sandusky, that afternoon I was at the fair, this young fellow with the two girls was fussed, being with the girls and losing his bet. You know how a fellow is that way. One of them was his girl and the other his sister. I had figured that out.
“Gee whizz,” I says to myself, “I’m going to give him the dope.”
He was mighty nice when I touched him on the shoulder. He and the girls were nice to me right from the start and clear to the end. I’m not blaming them.
And so he leaned back and I give him the dope on About Ben Ahem.”Don’t bet a cent on this first heat because he’ll go like an oxen hitched to a plow, but when the first heat is over go right down and lay on your pile.” That’s what I told him.
Well, I never saw a fellow treat any one sweller. There was a fat man sitting beside the little girl, that had looked at me twice by this time, and I at her, and both blushing, and what did he do but have the nerve to turn and ask the fat man to get up and change places with me so I could set with his crowd.
Gee whizz, craps amighty. There I was. What a chump I was to go and get gay up there in the West House bar, and just because that dude was standing there with a cane and that kind of a necktie on, to go and get all balled up and drink that whiskey, just to show off.
Of course she would know, me setting right beside her and letting her smell of my breath. I could have kicked myself right down out of that grand stand and all around that race track and made a faster record than most of the skates of horses they had there that year.
Because that girl wasn’t any mutt of a girl. What wouldn’t I have give right then for a stick of chewing gum to chew, or a lozenger,or some liquorice, or most anything. I was glad I had those twenty-five cent cigars in my pocket and right away I give that fellow one and lit one myself. Then that fat man got up and we changed places and there I was, plunked right down beside her.
They introduced themselves and the fellow’s best girl he had with him was named Miss Elinor Woodbury, and her father was a manufacturer of barrels from a place called Tiffin, Ohio. And the fellow himelf was named Wilbur Wessen and his sister was Miss Lucy Wessen.
I suppose it was their having such swell names that got me off my trolley. A fellow, just because he has been a swipe with a race horse and works taking care of horses for a man in the teaming, delivery, and storage business, isn’t any better or worse than anyone else. I’ve often thought that, and said it too.
But you know how a fellow is. There’s something in that kind of nice clothes, and the kind of nice eyes she had, and the way she had looked at me, awhile before, over her brother’s shoulder, and me looking back at her, and both of us blushing.
I couldn’t show her up for a boob, could I?
I made a fool of myself, that’s what I did. I said my name was Walter Mathers from Marietta, Ohio, and then I told all three of them the smashingest lie you ever heard. What I said was that my father owned the horse About Ben Ahem and that he had let him out to this Bob French for racing purposes, because our family was proud and had never gone into racing that way, in our own name, I mean, and Miss Lucy Wessen’s eyes were shining, and I went the whole hog.
I told about our place down at Marietta, and about the big stables and the grand brick house we had on a hill, up above the Ohio River, but I knew enough not to do it in no bragging way. What I did was to start things and then let them drag the rest out of me. I acted just as reluctant to tell as I could. Our family hasn’t got any barrel factory, and since I’ve known us, we’ve always been pretty poor, but not asking anything of anyone at that, and my grandfather, over in Wales—but never mind that.
We sat there talking like we had known each other for years and years, and I went and told them that my father had been expecting maybe this Bob French wasn’t on the square, and had sent me up to Sandusky on the sly to find out what I could.
And I bluffed it through I had found out all about the 2. 18 pace, in which About Ben Ahem was to start.
I said he would lose the first heat by pacing like a lame cow and then he would come back and skin ‘em alive after that. And to back up what I said I took thirty dollars out of my pocket and handed it to Mr. Wilbur Wessen and asked him, would he mind, after the first heat, to go down and place it on About Ben Ahem for whatever odds he could get. What I said was that I didn’t want Bob French to see me and none of the swipes.
Sure enough the first heat come off and About Ben Ahem went off his stride up the back stretch and looked like a wooden horse or a sick one and come in to be last. Then this Wilbur Wessen went down to the betting place under the grand stand and there I was with the two girls, and when that Miss Woodbury was looking the other way once, Lucy Wessen kinda, with her shoulder you know, kinda touched me. Not just tucking down, I don’t mean. You know how a woman can do. They get close, but not getting gay either. You know what they do. Gee whizz.
And then they give me a jolt. What they had done, when I didn’t know, was to get together, and they had decided Wilbur Wessen would bet fifty dollars, and the two girls had gone and put in ten dollars each, of their own money, too. I was sick then, but I was sicker later.
About the gelding, About Ben Ahem, and their winning their money, I wasn’t worried a lot about that. It came out O. K. Ahem stepped the next three heats like a bushel of spoiled eggs going to market before they could be found out, and Wilbur Wessen had got nine to two for the money. There was something else eating at me.
Because Wilbur come back after he had bet the money, and after that he spent most of his time talking to that Miss Woodbury, and Lucy Wessen and I was left alone together like on a desert island. Gee, if I’d only been on the square or if there had been any way of getting myself on the square. There ain’t any Walter Mathers, like I said to her and them, and there hasn’t ever been one, but if there was, I bet I’d go to Marietta, Ohio, and shoot him tomorrow.
There I was, big boob that I am. Pretty soon the race was over, and Wilbur had gone down and collected our money, and we had a hack downtown, and he stood us a swell supper at the West House, and a bottle of champagne beside.
And I was with that girl and she wasn’t saying much, and I wasn’t saying much either. One thing I know. She wasn’t stuck on me because of the lie about my father being rich and all that. There’s a way you know … Craps amighty. There’s a kind of girl you see just once in your life, and if you don’t get busy and make hay, then you’re gone for good and all, and might as well go jump off a bridge. They give you a look from inside of them somewhere, and it ain’t no vamping, and what it means is—you want that girl to be your wife, and you want nice things around her like flowers and swell clothes, and you want her to have the kids you’re going to have, and you want good music played and no ragtime. Gee whizz.
There’s a place over near Sandusky, across a kind of bay, and it’s called Cedar Point. And after we had supper we went over to it in a launch, all by ourselves. Wilbur and Miss Lucy and that Miss Woodbury had to catch a ten o’clock train back to Tiffin, Ohio, because, when you’re out with girls like that, you can’t get careless and miss any trains and stay out all night, like you can with some kinds of Janes.
And Wilbur blowed himself to the launch and it cost him fifteen cold plunks, but I wouldn’t never have knew if I hadn’t listened. He wasn’t no tin horn kind of a sport.
Over at the Cedar Point place, we didn’t stay around where there was a gang of common kind of cattle at all.
There was big dance halls and dining places for yaps, and there was a beach you could walk along and get where it was dark, and we went there.
She didn’t talk hardly at all and neither did I, and I was thinking how glad I was my mother was all right, and always made us kids learn to eat with a fork at the table, and not swill soup, and not be noisy and rough like a gang you see around a race track that way.
Then Wilbur and his girl went away up the beach and Lucy and I sat down in a dark place, where there was some roots of old trees the water had washed up, and after that the time, till we had to go back in the launch and they had to catch their trains, wasn’t nothing at all. It went like winking your eye.
Here’s how it was. The place we were setting in was dark, like I said, and there was the roots from that old stump sticking up like arms, and there was a watery smell, and the night was like—as if you could put your hand out and feel it—so warm and soft and dark and sweet like an orange.
I most cried and I most swore and I most jumped up and danced, I was so mad and happy and sad.
When Wilbur come back from being alone with his girl, and she saw him coming, Lucy she says, “We got to go to the train now,” and she was most crying too, but she never knew nothing I knew, and she couldn’t be so all busted up. And then, before Wilbur and Miss Woodbury got up to where we was, she put her face up and kissed me quick and put her head up against me and she was all quivering and—gee whizz.
Sometimes I hope I have cancer and die. I guess you know what I mean. We went in the launch across the bay to the train like that, and it was dark, too. She whispered and said it was like she and I could get out of the boat and walk on the water, and it sounded foolish, but I knew what she meant.
And then quick we were right at the depot, and there was a big gang of yaps, the kind that goes to the fairs, and crowded and milling around like cattle, and how could I tell her? “It won’t be long because you’ll write and I’ll write to you.” That’s all she said.
I got a chance like a hay barn afire. A swell chance I got.
And maybe she would write me, down at Marietta that way, and the letter would come back, and stamped on the front of it by the U. S. A.”there ain’t any such guy,” or something like that, whatever they stamp on a letter that way.
And me trying to pass myself off for a big-bug and a swell—to her, as decent a little body as God ever made. Craps amighty—a swell chance I got!
And then the train come in, and she got on it, and Wilbur Wessen, he come and shook hands with me, and that Miss Woodbury was nice too and bowed to me, and I at her, and the train went and I busted out and cried like a kid.
Gee, I could have run after that train and made Dan Patch look like a freight train after a wreck but, socks amighty, what was the use? Did you ever see such a fool?
I’ll bet you what—if I had an arm broke right now or a train had run over my foot—I wouldn’t go to no doctor at all. I’d go set down and let her hurt and hurt—that’s what I’d do.
I’ll bet you what—if I hadn’t a drunk that booze I’d a never been such a boob as to go tell such a lie—that couldn’t never be made straight to a lady like her.
I wish I had that fellow right here that had on a Windsor tie and carried a cane. I’d smash him for fair. Gosh darn his eyes. He’s a big fool—that’s what he is.
And if I’m not another you just go find me one and I’ll quit working and be a bum and give him my job. I don’t care nothing for working, and earning money, and saving it for no such boob as myself.