Chapter 15 : THE MYSTERY HORSE
The following night when Alec and Henry drove up to Belmont’s main gate, they saw Joe’s car parked there. Two men were inside. “That fellow with him must be Jim Neville,” Alec said hopefully.
Henry brought the truck to a stop and lightly touched the horn. “Leave your car here,” he called softly to Joe. “Jump on the truck—we’ve only a short way to go.”
The two men climbed out of the car and leaped onto the truck’s running board. Henry put the truck in gear as he saw Jake swing the gates open. Joe pushed his head in the open window near Henry. “Made it,” he said. “Where do we go from here?”
“Hold tight, my friend. You’ll find out,” Henry said.
Five minutes later they came to a stop beside the track. Henry and Alec climbed out. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood beside Joe; his hat was shoved back off his forehead and Alec saw long streaks of gray running through his black hair. Somehow Jim Neville looked just as Alec had imagined he would. Joe introduced them.
After the introductions, Jim said, “Frankly,” and his eyes squinted quizzically, “it’s only the newspaper man in me that gets me out here tonight, because as much faith as I have in my pal Joe here, I can’t imagine any horse in racing—today anyway—that can match strides with Cyclone or Sun Raider!”
Henry smiled. “Sure,” he said, “I’d say the same thing if I hadn’t seen the Black run!”
Jim Neville looked questioningly at Henry. “Say, you’re not by any chance the same Henry Dailey who rode Chang to victory in all those races about twenty years ago, are you?”
“Sure he is!” Alec said proudly.
Jim Neville pulled his hat down over his forehead. Alec could see that once again he was the reporter on the scent of a story. “And you believe,” Jim said seriously, “that you’ve got a horse here that can beat both Sun Raider and Cyclone?”
“Yep,” Henry answered. “It’s Alec’s horse; I just help train him.”
Joe Russo spoke up. “Why not show him the Black, Henry, and then we’ll let him draw his own conclusions?”
“Good idea,” said Alec as he walked toward the back of the truck.
He led the Black out on the ramp. “Say,” he heard Jim exclaim, “he is a giant of a horse!” The stallion shook his head. He was full of life tonight for he knew well that he was going to run. His small, savagely beautiful head turned toward the group of men below him. He drew up, made a single effort to jump, which Alec curbed, and then stood quivering while the boy talked soothingly and patted him.
Jake came up and Henry introduced him to Joe and Jim. “Say,” Jake smiled, “this is growin’ into quite a shindig, isn’t it?”
Jim walked carefully around the stallion.
“Watch out. He might kick, if you get too close,” warned Alec. “He doesn’t know you.”
“Don’t worry! I won’t get too close to this fellow,” Jim said. “I’m beginning to see what you fellows mean,” he added. “If he can run as well as he looks—”
Henry disappeared into the truck and came out leading Napoleon.
“Hey, what’ve you got here—another champion?” Jim threw back his head and howled.
“This is Napoleon.” Henry grinned.
“He has sort of a quieting effect on the Black, so we always bring him along,” Alec explained.
Jim Neville watched as Napoleon reached his nose up toward the stallion’s. “Maybe not such a bad idea, after all,” he said.
A few minutes later they boosted Alec into the saddle. The Black pawed the ground. Jim Neville got too close and the Black’s teeth snapped as he tried to reach him. Henry held him back. It was plain to see he wasn’t used to seeing so many people around at one time. He tossed his head up and down, his heavy mane falling over his forehead. Suddenly he rose on his hind legs, tearing the bridle out of Henry’s grasp; his legs struck out, hitting Henry in the arm.
Alec pulled hard on the reins and jerked him to the side. “Black!” he said. “Down!” The men retreated quickly to a safe distance. Jake was rolling up Henry’s sleeve, which was wet with blood.
“Did he get you bad, Henry?” Alec asked.
Jake and Henry were inspecting the wound. “Nothing broke,” answered Jake. “Just a bad cut; we’ll go up to the First Aid Room and fix it!”
“No, we won’t,” Henry said. “I came down here to watch this workout and I’m going to see it. I’ll take care of this later—you gotta take more’n a cut in this business.”
“He sure is a devil!” Jim Neville yelled from the other side of the Black.
“We got him excited, that’s all,” answered Henry. “First time he’s done that to me.”
Again the stallion reared and Alec brought him down. “Get him out on the track, kid,” Jake yelled.
The Black pranced nervously as they went through the gate. Once again Alec felt his body grow warm with excitement. He patted the crest on the stallion’s neck. “We’re off, fella,” he said. Alec looked back at the small group of men behind him. They were all leaning on the fence, watching eagerly.
Joe Russo’s voice drifted toward him. “That kid’s not going on any picnic,” he said.
Alec grasped the reins still tighter and leaned over until his head touched the stallion’s. He knew full well the danger that was his every time he rode the Black, especially when he let him loose on the track. The stallion would never hurt him knowingly, but once he got his head he was no longer the Black that Alec knew—but once again a wild stallion that had never been clearly broken, and never would be!
Suddenly the Black bolted. His action shifted marvelously as his powerful legs swept over the ground. Fleet hoofbeats made a clattering roar in Alec’s ears. The stallion’s speed became greater and greater. Alec’s body grew numb, the terrific speed made it hard for him to breathe. Once again the track became a blur, and he was conscious only of the endless white fence slipping by. His fingers grasped the stallion’s mane and his head hung low beside his neck. His only thought was to remain on the Black’s back and to stay alert. His breath came in short gasps, the white fence faded from his vision; desperately he tried to open his eyes, but his lids seemed held down by weights. Bells began to ring in his ears. Alec’s fingers tightened on the Black’s mane. He lost all track of time—then the world started turning upside down.
It seemed hours later that he felt arms reach around his waist. Then the next thing he knew, he found himself lying flat on his back beside the truck. He looked up at the men grouped around him. Henry knelt beside him, his white handkerchief stained with large dark spots bulging around his arm. Alec’s eyes fell to his own hands. Strands of long, black hair were clenched between doubled fists. Questioningly he looked up at Henry.
“How—” he began.
“It’s all right, kid. You wouldn’t let go of him. Feel all right?”
“Kinda dizzy,” answered Alec. “Where’s the Black?”
“He’s okay—we put him in the truck with Napoleon.”
“Did I fall off, Henry?” Alec asked.
Jake’s high-pitched voice reached Alec’s ears. “Fall off?” he said. “Boy, if that hoss was still running, you’d still be on him. Took all of us to get you off his back when he did stop, and then Henry was the only one of us who could get near him.”
“I’m glad I stuck on him,” Alec said. “Y’know, Henry, we’ve never seen that horse run his fastest yet. I just couldn’t seem to breathe that time.”
“Takes courage to ride him, kid,” Henry answered. “I’m pretty proud of you, but let’s try getting you to your feet. Better for you if you can walk around.”
Alec swayed a little as Henry and Jake lifted him up, but gradually the earth stopped turning around and his brain cleared. He breathed in the night air deeply.
Jim Neville came up. “Kid,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of riding in my day, but never any to equal that!” Jim then turned to Henry. “You were right, Mr. Dailey—he is the fastest horse we’ve ever seen. I can hardly believe what I saw with my own eyes but”—Jim held the face of a stopwatch up in front of Henry—“I can’t deny this!” Then he turned brusquely to Joe Russo. “And now, Joe, we both have a deadline to make, so let’s get going.”
“Come around again—anytime you want,” Henry urged, “and we’ll let you see the grandest animal on four feet run without even charging admission.”
Jim Neville’s eyes twinkled. “A lot of people are going to see that horse in action if I have anything to say about it!” he said.
Alec felt the earth whirl around him again. “Honest, Jim,” he said, “do you think we could?”
“I’m not promising anything, kid,” replied Jim, “but I’m going to start something or I miss my guess. Take a look at my column tomorrow. And now we do have to get going. Come on, Joe.”
“I’ll go along with you and let you out,” said Jake.
After they had gone, Henry put his arm through Alec’s and they walked back and forth until the blood once again was circulating through the boy’s legs. “I feel okay now, Henry,” he said.
They climbed into the truck. Alec looked back through the small window, and saw the stallion peering anxiously at him. “Yep, Mister,” he said, “that was quite a ride!”
“Well, Alec,” Henry said, “I hope that whatever Jim Neville is going to do gets us in that race.”
“You’re not hoping any more than I am.”
The next day was Saturday. Alec rushed over to the barn immediately after breakfast. Henry always had a morning paper and probably he was already reading Jim Neville’s column.
Sure enough, he was sitting outside reading as Alec camp up. “What’s he say?” the boy asked anxiously.
Henry grinned as he handed him the paper. “Read it for yourself.”
Alec’s eyes swept over the headline—WHO IS THE MYSTERY HORSE THAT CAN BEAT BOTH CYCLONE AND SUN RAIDER? “Yes, I know,” Jim Neville wrote. “I’m the guy that said there wasn’t a horse in the world that could beat that rarin’ red bundle of dynamite—Cyclone. Not even Sun Raider. Yep, and I’m the guy that wrote to Messrs. Volence and Hurst, owners of these thoroughbreds, suggesting the coming match between their horses on the twenty-sixth of June—just two weeks off.“This race in my mind—and I suppose in the minds of the whole American public—was to settle one thing: To see which horse was the fastest in the country! Both Cyclone and Sun Raider had beaten everything they had met on the track, and it was only natural then that they should meet to settle this question of track supremacy.
“But now, in my mind, this race will no longer prove who’s the fastest horse on four legs, because I’ve seen a horse that can beat both of them. This is something I have to get off my chest, because you racing fans are going to crown the winner of Chicago’s match race as the world’s fastest horse—and it isn’t true. There is still another horse—a great horse, who can beat either one of them.
“It’s only fair to tell you that this horse has never raced on a track, and perhaps never will—because he lacks the necessary registration papers. And now I find that I’m coming to the end of my column, so I’ll close with just this reminder that while you folks are acclaiming the winner of the coming Cyclone–Sun Raider race as today’s champion, I know of a horse—a mystery horse that’s right here in New York—who could probably make both of them eat his dust!”
“Say, that is starting something,” said Alec.
“You said it, son; he’ll have everybody on his neck before this day is out!”
“He didn’t come right out and suggest that the Black run in the match race, though, Henry,” Alec said.
“No—but he’s left the door wide open and you can bet somebody will suggest it.”
“Gee, I hope it works, Henry. Just think, the Black against Cyclone and Sun Raider. Boy! What a race!”
“You said it!” Henry agreed. Then he paused for a minute. “Say, Alec, wonder if we did get the Black in the race—how do you think your folks would take it? About you ridin’, I mean.”
Alec’s eyes met Henry’s. “They just gotta let me ride, Henry. They’ll understand, I’m sure, especially after we tell them how I’ve been riding the Black at Belmont. Funny thing, Henry—Mother decided last night that she’s going to Chicago middle of next week to visit my aunt for a couple of weeks. She’ll be there at the same time as the match race!”
“Whew,” said Henry, “that’s somethin’!”
“Mother isn’t interested in races; she probably won’t even go to see it! You know, Henry, as long as we don’t even know yet whether the Black is going to be in the race, I won’t even mention it to Mother. If the Black does get in—I’ll talk it all over with Dad; he’ll understand.”
“Hope so,” answered Henry.
When Alec looked over the evening papers that night, he saw that Henry certainly was right about everybody’s jumping on Jim Neville’s neck. The sports pages were filled with articles ridiculing Jim’s “insane idea” that there was a horse in America—yes, right here in New York—that could beat the two champions!
Because Jim Neville’s column was carried in papers from coast to coast, and because he was one of the foremost sports authorities in the country, his articles on the mystery horse aroused more and more curiosity with every day that passed. And in spite of the criticism that he was getting, Jim wouldn’t let the public forget about his mystery horse. Each day in his column he would carry a paragraph about him. Each night on his network sports program, he would again mention him.
One sports writer wrote, “Only a figure as well-known as Jim Neville could have created such a hullabaloo as is now going on over the merits of a mystery horse that Neville claims can beat both Sun Raider and Cyclone!”
A week passed and the small snowball that Jim had started rolling continued to gain momentum. “Who is this mystery horse?” the racing public wanted to know. Jim’s only reply was that he had promised to keep his name a secret, but that he could get him at a moment’s notice.
He called Henry and Alec on the telephone. “Don’t run him at Belmont any more,” he told them. “This is getting bigger than I had even hoped it would. We’ll have the Black in that race yet!”
Another week passed. Alec’s mother left to visit her sister in Chicago. The match race was only one week off.
Alec felt a little discouraged as he made his way toward the barn early one morning to give the Black a workout before he went to school. Time was growing short—if they only had another two weeks…
He met Tony coming out of the barn with Napoleon.
“Hello, young fella,” he said. “Ah, thees is da life.” He pounded his short, stocky arms against his chest and breathed in the early morning air.
“Yeah,” Alec said. “Sure is, Tony.”
Tony backed Napoleon into his wagon and started harnessing him up. “What’s-a da matter, young fella? You look kinda down in da dumps.”
“I’m all right, Tony,” Alec answered. “Guess I was just thinking.”
“Too much-a thinkin’ doesn’t do nobody good,” Tony said wisely as he climbed into the seat.
“Guess you’re right, Tony. See you later.”
“You betcha,” came the reply.
Alec led the Black out of his stall and went over him with a soft cloth. Then he snapped the long lead rope on his halter and led him out into the early morning sunshine. The stallion ran around the boy, kicking his heels high into the air. Then he came closer and playfully tried to nip Alec. “Feeling pretty good this morning, aren’t you?” Alec asked.
A few minutes later he threw the saddle on him and rode him into the field. Somehow he always felt different when he was astride the Black. It was like being in a world all his own. Forgotten were his problems, the city around him—it was like flying in the clouds.
A half-hour later he slipped down from the stallion’s back and led him back into the barn. He had just finished feeding him when Henry came in. “I’m almost late for school, Henry,” Alec said. “Would you mind giving him the once-over with the cloth—?” He stopped as he saw a wide grin on Henry’s face.
“Sure,” Henry said, “but read this before you go, lad!” He handed Alec the morning paper.
Alec turned quickly to Jim Neville’s column. His heart seemed to stop when he read the headline: MYSTERY HORSE TO RUN IN CHICAGO MATCH RACE. He swelled all up inside, and for a minute he couldn’t see the paper—then it became clear again.
“Yesterday,” Jim Neville wrote, “I received one of the most sporting letters that I have ever had the pleasure to receive. It was from Mr. E. L. Hurst, owner of Cyclone. His letter was short and to the point. He suggested that since the match race to be held in Chicago next week is just for the good of racing and the proceeds are all going to charity, he saw no reason why my mystery horse should not run against his horse and Sun Raider. Mr. Hurst said that he sincerely believed that Cyclone had never been pushed as fast as he could go, and there was no horse on earth that he feared. If the owner of the mystery horse believed that his horse could beat Cyclone, he would not object to his trying as long as it was also satisfactory to Mr. C. T. Volence, owner of Sun Raider.
“As soon as I received Mr. Hurst’s letter, I phoned Mr. Volence in Los Angeles and read it to him. I asked him if he felt the same way about it, and he said, ‘Yes, definitely.’ He went on to say that, with the country talking so much about this mystery horse, it would save them running another match race next month. ‘Might as well kill two birds with one stone—’ he said, ‘Cyclone and Neville’s Folly!’
“Neville’s Folly, heh, Mr. Volence—just wait’ll you see him in action!” the article finished.
Alec looked up from the paper at Henry. Slowly a grin spread over his face. Instead of feeling delirious with excitement as he had expected, he felt cool and composed.
“He’s in, Henry,” he said. “He’s in!” The man and the boy looked at each other, and then turned and walked toward the stallion, who had stuck his black head out the stall door and was looking at them curiously.