Dad sat pensively at one corner of the fire-place—Dave at the other with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his palms.
“Think you could ride a race, Dave?” asked Dad.
“Yairs,” answered Dave, without taking his eyes off the fire, or his chin from his palms—“could, I suppose, if I’d a pair o’ lighter boots ’n these.”
Again they reflected.
Joe triumphantly held up the mutilated form of a murdered mouse and invited the household to “Look!” No one heeded him.
“Would your Mother’s go on you?”
“Might,” and Dave spat into the fire.
“Anyway,” Dad went on, “we must have a go at this handicap with the old mare; it’s worth trying for, and, believe me, now! she’ll surprise a few of their flash hacks, will Bess.”
“Yairs, she can go all right.” And Dave spat again into the fire.
“Go! I’ve never known anything to keep up with her. Why, bless my soul, seventeen years ago, when old Redwood owned her, there was n’t a horse in the district could come within coo-ee of her. All she wants is a few feeds of corn and a gallop or two, and mark my words she’ll show some of them the way.”
Some horse-races were being promoted by the shanty-keeper at the Overhaul—seven miles from our selection. They were the first of the kind held in the district, and the stake for the principal event was five pounds. It was n’t because Dad was a racing man or subject to turf hallucinations in any way that he thought of preparing Bess for the meeting. We sadly needed those five pounds, and, as Dad put it, if the mare could only win, it would be an easier and much quicker way of making a bit of money than waiting for a crop to grow.
Bess was hobbled and put into a two-acre paddock near the house. We put her there because of her wisdom. She was a chestnut, full of villainy, an absolutely incorrigible old rogue. If at any time she was wanted when in the grass paddock, it required the lot of us from Dad down to yard her, as well as the dogs, and every other dog in the neighbourhood. Not that she had any brumby element in her—she would have been easier to yard if she had—but she would drive steadily enough, alone or with other horses, until she saw the yard, when she would turn and deliberately walk away. If we walked to head her she beat us by half a length; if we ran she ran, and stopped when we stopped. That was the aggravating part of her! When it was only to go to the store or the post-office that we wanted her, we could have walked there and back a dozen times before we could run her down; but, somehow, we generally preferred to work hard catching her rather than walk.
When we had spent half the day hunting for the curry-comb, which we did n’t find, Dad began to rub Bess down with a corn-cob—a shelled one—and trim her up a bit. He pulled her tail and cut the hair off her heels with a knife; then he gave her some corn to eat, and told Joe he was to have a bundle of thistles cut for her every night. Now and again, while grooming her, Dad would step back a few paces and look upon her with pride.
“There’s great breeding in the old mare,” he would say, “great breeding; look at the shoulder on her, and the loin she has; and where did ever you see a horse with the same nostril? Believe me, she’ll surprise a few of them!”
We began to regard Bess with profound respect; hitherto we had been accustomed to pelt her with potatoes and blue-metal.
The only thing likely to prejudice her chance in the race, Dad reckoned, was a small sore on her back about the size of a foal’s foot. She had had that sore for upwards of ten years to our knowledge, but Dad hoped to have it cured before the race came off with a never-failing remedy he had discovered—burnt leather and fat.
Every day, along with Dad, we would stand on the fence near the house to watch Dave gallop Bess from the bottom of the lane to the barn—about a mile. We could always see him start, but immediately after he would disappear down a big gully, and we would see nothing more of the gallop till he came to within a hundred yards of us. And would n’t Bess bend to it once she got up the hill, and fly past with Dave in the stirrups watching her shadow!—when there was one: she was a little too fine to throw a shadow always. And when Dave and Bess had got back and Joe had led her round the yard a few times, Dad would rub the corn-cob over her again and apply more burnt-leather and fat to her back.
On the morning preceding the race Dad decided to send Bess over three miles to improve her wind. Dave took her to the crossing at the creek—supposed to be three miles from Shingle Hut, but it might have been four or it might have been five, and there was a stony ridge on the way.
We mounted the fence and waited. Tommy Wilkie came along riding a plough-horse. He waited too.
“Ought to be coming now,” Dad observed, and Wilkie got excited. He said he would go and wait in the gully and race Dave home. “Race him home!” Dad chuckled, as Tommy cantered off, “he’ll never see the way Bess goes.” Then we all laughed.
Just as someone cried “Here he is!” Dave turned the corner into the lane, and Joe fell off the fence and pulled Dad with him. Dad damned him and scrambled up again as fast as he could. After a while Tommy Wilkie hove in sight amid a cloud of dust. Then came Dave at scarcely faster than a trot, and flogging all he knew with a piece of greenhide plough-rein. Bess was all-out and floundering. There was about two hundred yards yet to cover. Dave kept at her—thud! thud! Slower and slower she came. “Damn the fellow!” Dad said; “what’s he beating her for?” “Stop it, you fool!” he shouted. But Dave sat down on her for the final effort and applied the hide faster and faster. Dad crunched his teeth. Once—twice—three times Bess changed her stride, then struck a branch-root of a tree that projected a few inches above ground, and over she went—crash! Dave fell on his head and lay spread out, motionless. We picked him up and carried him inside, and when Mother saw blood on him she fainted straight off without waiting to know if it were his own or not. Both looked as good as dead; but Dad, with a bucket of water, soon brought them round again.
It was scarcely dawn when we began preparing for a start to the races. Dave, after spending fully an hour trying in vain to pull on Mother’s elastic-side boots, decided to ride in his own heavy bluchers. We went with Dad in the dray. Mother would n’t go; she said she did n’t want to see her son get killed, and warned Dad that if anything happened the blame would for ever be on his head.
We arrived at the Overhaul in good time. Dad took the horse out of the dray and tied him to a tree. Dave led Bess about, and we stood and watched the shanty-keeper unpacking gingerbeer. Joe asked Dad for sixpence to buy some, but Dad had n’t any small change. We remained in front of the booth through most of the day, and ran after any corks that popped out and handed them in again to the shanty-keeper. He did n’t offer us anything—not a thing!
“Saddle up for the Overhaul Handicap!” was at last sung out, and Dad, saddle on arm, advanced to where Dave was walking Bess about. They saddled up and Dave mounted, looking as pale as death.
“I don’t like ridin’ in these boots a bit,” he said, with a quiver in his voice.
“Wot’s up with ’em?” Dad asked.
“They’re too big altogether.”
“Well, take ’em off then!”
Dave jumped down and pulled them off-leaving his socks on.
More than a dozen horses went out, and when the starter said “Off!” did n’t they go! Our eyes at once followed Bess. Dave was at her right from the jump—the very opposite to what Dad had told him. In the first furlong she put fully twenty yards of daylight between herself and the field—she came after the field. At the back of the course you could see the whole of Kyle’s selection and two of Jerry Keefe’s hay-stacks between her and the others. We did n’t follow her any further.
After the race was won and they had cheered the winner, Dad was n’t to be found anywhere.
Dave sat on the grass quite exhausted. “Ain’t y’ goin’ to pull the saddle off?” Joe asked.
“No,” he said. “I ain’t. You don’t want everyone to see her back, do you?”
Joe wished he had sixpence.
About an hour afterwards Dad came staggering along arm-in-arm with another man—an old fencing-mate of his, so he made out.
“Thur yar,” he said, taking off his hat and striking Bess on the rump with it; “besh bred mare in the worl’.”
The fencing-mate looked at her, but did n’t say anything; he could n’t.
“Eh?” Dad went on; “say sh’ain’t? L’ere-ever y’ name is—betcher pound sh’is.”
Then a jeering and laughing crowd gathered round, and Dave wished he had n’t come to the races.
“She ain’t well,” said a tall man to Dad—“short in her gallops.” Then a short, bulky individual without whiskers shoved his face up into Dad’s and asked him if Bess was a mare or a cow. Dad became excited, and only that old Anderson came forward and took him away there must have been a row.
Anderson put him in the dray and drove it home to Shingle Hut.
Dad reckons now that there is nothing in horse-racing, and declares it a fraud. He says, further, that an honest man, by training and racing a horse, is only helping to feed and fatten the rogues and vagabonds that live on the sport.