Read CHAPTER XIV of Once to Every Man , free online book, by Larry Evans, on ReadCentral.com.

Denny had begun to get back into his clothes, pausing now and then to dabble tentatively at the freshly broken bruise with the wet towel which Ogden had at last forced him to accept, when the door of the dressing-room opened, and Hogarty stepped briskly inside and closed the door behind him.

The ex-lightweight ignored entirely the covertly delighted grin that lit up Bobby Ogden’s features at his appearance. His own too-pale, too-thin lips were curved in a ghost of a smile; his face had lost all its dangerous tautness, but the greatest change of all lay there in his eyes. Their flaring antagonism had burnt itself out. And when Hogarty spoke it was once more in his smoothly perfect, delightfully measured, best professor-of-English style, for all that his opening remark was couched in the vernacular.

“Mr. Bolton,” he began to the boy sitting quiet before him, “it looks as though we would have to hand it to you which I earnestly desire you to believe I am now doing, with both hands. It may eventually prove that I lost a most valuable assistant through this morning’s little flurry. I am not quite certain yet as to that as Boots is not sufficiently himself to give the matter judicious consideration.

“He still thinks I crossed him for the entertainment’s sake which is of little immediate importance. What I did come in for was to listen to anything at all that you may have to tell me. You’ll admit, of course, that while your explanation as to your errand was strictly to the point, it was scarcely comprehensive. My own unfortunate temper was, no doubt, largely the cause of your brevity.”

He hesitated a moment, clearing his throat and gazing blankly at the grinning Ogden.

“As Ogden here has of course told you, I’m well, rather touchy when interrupted at my favorite pastime, and especially so when I am trying to get a few minutes relaxation with a pin-headed person who insists upon playing without watching the board.

“But you spoke of wanting an opportunity of er entering the game professionally. I’m not admitting you’re a world-beater, understand or anything like that! You’ve just succeeded in putting away a man who was as formidable as the best of them, five years ago. And five years isn’t today, by any means. I’ve been looking for a real possibility to appear for so long that I’ve grown exceedingly sensitive at each fresh failure. And yet and yet, if you did have the stuff !”

Again he stopped and Denny, watching, saw the proprietor’s face glow suddenly with a savage sort of exultation. His eyes, half-veiled behind drooping lids that twitched a little, went unseeingly over the boy’s head as though they were visualizing a triumph so long anticipated that it had become almost a lost hope. Again that promise of something ominous blackened the pupils something totally dangerous that harmonized perfectly with the snarl upon his lips.

Hogarty’s whole attitude was that of a man who wanted to believe and yet who, because he knew that the very measure of his eagerness made him doubly easy to convince, had resolved not to let himself accept one spurious proof. And all his skepticism was shot through and through with hate a deadly, patient sort of hatred for someone which was as easy to see as it was hard for the big-shouldered boy to understand.

There was craft in the ex-lightweight’s bearing a gentleness almost stealthy when he leaned forward a little, as if he feared that the first abrupt move or word on his part would frighten away that timid hope.

“I believe that you said some one sent you. You you did not mention the name?”

Denny leaned over and picked up his coat from a chair beside the bench, searching the pockets until he found the card which the plump, brown-clad newspaper man had given him. Without a word he reached out and put it in Hogarty’s hands.

It bore Jesse Hogarty’s Fourteenth Street address across its face. Hogarty turned it over.

“Introducing the Pilgrim,” ran the caption in the cramped handwriting of Chub Morehouse’s stubby fingers. And, beneath, that succinct sentence which was not so cryptic after all:

“Some of them may have science, and some of them may have speed, but after all it’s the man who can take punishment who gets the final decision. Call me up, if this ever comes to hand.”

Very deliberately Hogarty deciphered the words, lifted a vaguely puzzled face to Young Denny, who waited immobile and then returned again to the card. He even nodded once in thorough appreciation of the title which Morehouse had given the boy; he smiled faintly as he remembered Denny as he had stood there in the entrance of the big room, a short while before, and realized how apt the phrase was. Then he began to whistle, a shrill, faint, monotonous measure, the calculating glitter in his eyes growing more and more brilliant.

“So!” he murmured thoughtfully. “So-o-o!”

And then, to Denny:

“Was there did he make any comment in particular, when he gave you this?”

The boy’s eyes twinkled.

“He made several,” he answered. “He said that there was a man at that address meaning you that would fall on my neck and weep, if I happened to have the stuff. And he warned me, too, not to think that Jed The Red fought like a school boy, just because he was a second-rater because he didn’t, nothing like that!”

Hogarty laughed aloud. That sudden, staccato chuckle was almost startling coming from his pale lips. It hushed just as quickly as it had begun.

“Jed The Red, eh?” he reiterated softly, and he began tapping the card with his fingertips. “I see, or at least I am commencing to get a glimmer of those possibilities which Mr. Morehouse may have had in mind. And now I think the one best thing to do would be to call him up, as he has here requested. As soon as you finish dressing Ogden here will show you the rest of the works, if you’d care to look around a little. It is entirely likely that we shall want to talk with you directly.”

He wheeled abruptly toward Ogden who had been listening without a word, the broad grin never leaving his lips. It was the silk-shirted boy to whom Hogarty addressed the rest of that sentence.

“And you,” he said, and his voice shed with astounding completeness all its syllabled nicety. “You try to make yourself useful as well as pestilential. Get him a bit of adhesive for that cut. It looks as bad as though a horse had kicked him there.

“And the rest of your mob will be swarming in here in a few minutes, too. You can tell them that Sutton is er indisposed this morning, and that they’ll have to play by themselves.”

He nodded briefly to Denny and opened the door. But he stopped again before he passed out.

“There’s one other question, Mr. Bolton,” he said over his shoulder. “And please believe that I am not usually so inquisitive. But I’m more than a little curious to know why you did not present this card first and go through the little informal examination I arranged for you afterward? It would have insured you a far different reception. Was there any special reason, or did you just overlook it?”

Denny dabbed again at the red drop on his chin.

“No, I didn’t exactly forget it,” he stated ponderously. “But, you see, I kind of thought if I just told you first that I wanted to see if I had any chance, you wouldn’t make any allowances for me because I ”

Hogarty’s second nod which cut him short was the quintessence of crisp satisfaction.

“I understand,” he cut in. “Perfectly! And quite right quite right!”

The ex-lightweight proprietor was sitting with his chin clasped in both palms, still staring at the half facetious words of introduction which the plump newspaper man had penciled across that card, when the door of the small office in the front of the gymnasium was pushed open a crack, some scant fifteen minutes after his peremptory summons had gone out over the wire, and made him lift his head.

His eyes were filmed with a preoccupation too profound to be dispelled by the mock anxiety upon the chubby round countenance which Morehouse thrust through that small aperture between door and frame, or his excessively overdone caution as he swung the door wider and tiptoed over the threshold, to stand and point a rigidly stubby finger behind him at the trail of nail prints which Young Denny’s shoes had left across the glistening wax an hour or so earlier.

“Jesse,” he whispered hoarsely, “some one has perpetrated here upon the sacred sheen of your floor a dastardly outrage! I merely want you to note, before you start running the guilty one to earth, that I am making my entrance entirely in accordance with your oft-reiterated instructions. I am not he!”

For all the change which it brought about in Hogarty’s face that greeting might have been left unspoken. He vouchsafed the fat man’s elaborate pantomime not so much as the shadow of a smile, nodded once, thoughtfully, and let his eyes fall again to the card between his elbows on the table-top.

“Come in, Chub,” he invited shortly. “Come in.” And as a clamor of many voices in the outer entrance heralded the arrival of the rest of Ogden’s crowd: “Here comes the mob now. Come in and close the door.”

Morehouse, still from head to toe a symphony in many-toned browns, shed every shred of his facetiousness at Hogarty’s crisply repeated invitation. He closed the door and snapped the catch that made it fast before he crossed, without a word, and drew a chair up to the opposite side of the desk.

“Your hurry call just caught me as I was leaving for lunch,” he explained then. “And I made pretty fair time getting down here, too. What’s the dark secret?”

The black-clad proprietor lifted his lean jaw from his hands and gazed long and steadily into the newspaper man’s eyes, picked up the bit of pasteboard which bore the latter’s own name across its front and flipped it silently across the table to him. Morehouse took it up gingerly and read it reversed it and read again.

“Nice little touch, that,” he averred finally. “Rather neat and tasty, if I do say it myself. ‘Introducing The Pilgrim!’ Hum-m-m. You can’t quite appreciate it of course, but oh, Flash, I wish you could have seen that big boy standing there in the door of that little backwoods tavern, just as I saw him, about a week ago! Why, he he was ”

“He’s come!” Hogarty cut in briefly.

Morehouse’s chin dropped. He sat with mouth agape.

“Huh?” he grunted. “He’s he’s come where?”

Where his facetiousness had failed him Morehouse’s round-eyed astonishment, a little tinged with panic, was more than successful. Hogarty permitted himself to smile a trifle his queer, strained smile.

“He is here,” he repeated gravely, and the words were couched in his choicest accents. “He came in, perhaps, an hour ago. That is his monogramed trail across the floor which caught your eye. Oh, he’s here don’t doubt that! I’ll give you a little review of the manner of his coming, after you tell me how you ever happened to send him why you gave him that card? What’s the answer to it, Chub?”

That same light of savage hope and cruelly calculating enmity, all so strangely mixed with a persistent doubt, which Young Denny had seen flare up in the ex-lightweight’s eyes a little while before, back in the dressing-room, began to creep once more across Hogarty’s face.

“You know how long I’ve been waiting for one to come along, Chub,” he went on, almost hoarsely. “You know how I’ve looked for the man who could do what none of the others have done yet, even though he is only a second-rater. Twice I thought I had a newcomer who could put The Red away and put him away for keeps and I just fooled myself because I was so anxious to believe. I’ve grown a trifle wary, Chub, just a trifle! Now, I’d like to hear you talk!”

Morehouse sat and fingered that card for a long time in absolute silence a silence that was heavy with embarrassment on his part. He understood, without need of explanation, for whom that chill hatred glowed in the spare ex-lightweight’s eyes knew the full reason for it. And because he knew Hogarty, too, as few men had ever come to know him, he had often assured himself that he was thankful not to be the man who had earned it.

That knowledge had been very vividly present when, a few days before, on the platform of the Boltonwood station, he had requested Denny Bolton to give him back his card for a moment, after listening to the boy’s grave explanation of the raw wound across his cheek, and on a quite momentary impulse written across its back that short sentence which was so meaty with meaning. Every detail of Hogarty’s country-wide search for a man who could whip Jed The Red was an open secret, so far as he was concerned; he was familiar with all the bitterness of every fresh disappointment, but he had never seen Hogarty’s face so alive with exultant hope as it was at that moment.

And Morehouse was embarrassed and sorry, and ashamed, too, of what seemed now must have been a weak surrender to an impulse which, after all, could have been born of nothing but a too keen sense of humor. Hogarty’s face was more than eager. It was white and strained.

“Flash,” he began at last, ludicrously uncomfortable, “Flash, I’m sorry I wrote this, for I always told you that if I ever did send any one to you he’d be a live one and worth your trouble. Right this minute I can’t tell why I did it, either, unless I am one of those naturally dangerous idiots with a perverted sense of what is really funny. Or maybe I didn’t believe he’d ever get any farther from home than he was that morning when I gave him this card. That must have been it, I suppose. Because I never saw him in action. Why, I never so much as saw him kick a dog!

“I’m telling you because I don’t want you to be disappointed again and yet I have to tell you, too, that right at the time I wrote this stuff, Flash, just for a minute or two, I believe I did almost think he might be an answer to your riddle. Maybe that was because he had already licked Jed The Red once, and I should judge, made a very thorough job of it at that. That must have influenced me some. But let me tell you all the story and maybe you’ll understand a little better something that I can’t say for myself right at this very instant.”

Morehouse began at the very beginning, looking oftener at the card between his fingers than at Hogarty’s too brilliant eyes, which were fairly burning his face.

“In the first place, Flash,” he went on, “you know as well as I do that The Red isn’t a real champion and never will be. He has the build and the punch, and he’s game, too you’ll have to hand him that. But stacked up against the men who held the title ten years ago he’d last about five rounds if he was lucky. I don’t know why that is, either, unless he is so crooked at heart that he loses confidence even in himself when he has to face a real man. But the public at this minute thinks he is as great as the greatest. The way he polished off The Texan had convinced them of that and we well, the paper always tries to give them what they want, you know.

“Now that was the reason I ran up north last week, after I’d got a tip that Conway hailed originally from a little New England village back in the hills one of those towns that are almost as up-to-date today as they were fifty years ago. It looked like a nice catchy little story, which I will, of course, admit I could have faked just as well as not. But it was the cartoons I wanted. You can’t really fake them not after you’ve once known the real thing. And as it happens I have known it, for I came from a village up that way myself.

“And, then, I was curious, too. I’ve always had a private opinion that if chance hadn’t pitchforked Conway into the prize-ring he’d have made a grand success as a blackjack artist or a second-story man. But I wanted the pictures, and it wasn’t a very difficult matter either to get them. You see I knew just where I’d find what I wanted, and things panned out pretty much as I thought they would.

“It didn’t take more than a half hour to spread the report that Conway was practically the only really famous man in the country today, and in a fair way to make his own home town just as celebrated. It may sound funny to you, for you don’t know the back-country as I do, but just that short article in the daily, coupled with a few helpful hints from me that I was looking for all the nice, touching incidents of his boyhood days, with the opinions of the oldest inhabitants, and maybe a few of their pictures to be used in a big Sunday feature, brought them all out: the old circle of regulars which always sits around the tavern stove nights, straightening out the country’s politics and attending strictly to everybody’s affairs but their own.

“Eager? Man, it was a stampede! I reckon that every male inhabitant within a radius of five miles was there when I opened the meeting with a few choice words every man but one, and he comes in just a little later in this tale. They surely did turn out. It was as perfect a mass meeting as any I’ve ever seen, but the crowd itself didn’t get much of a chance to talk not individually anyhow. They were simply the chorus of ‘ayes’ which the town’s big man paused now and then for them to voice.

“He did the talking, Flash. They called him ’Judge’ they most always do in those towns. He most certainly monopolized the conversation, and while he gave his monologue, I sat and got the best of them down on paper. They thought I was taking notes. I’ll show you his picture some day. He’s the meanest man I ever met yet and I’ve met a few! Puffy-faced and red, and too close between the eyes. Fat, too! Somehow I’m ashamed of being plump myself, since meeting him.

“He did all the talking, and from the very first time he opened his mouth I knew he was lying. You can always tell a professional liar; he lies too smoothly, somehow. Well, to judge from his story Conway was the only unspotted cherub child that had ever been born and bred in that section. Oh, yes, he’d seen the promise in Conway; he knew that Conway was to be the pride and joy of the community, right from the first. He’d always said so! Why, he was the very man who had given him his first pointers in the game, when he was cleaning up all the rest of the boys in town, just by way of recreation. If I’d never had a suspicion before I’d have known just from those slick sentences of his that Conway had never been anything in that village but a small-sized edition of the full-blown crook he is today.

“But I didn’t have any reason to contradict him, did I? He was doing all that I could ask, and more. For there wasn’t a man in that whole crowd who dared to sneeze until he got his cue from the Judge. But that fat man got his jolt finally, just the same, and got it good, too.

“He had just finished telling how Conway had cleaned up the village kids, irrespective of size, whenever he felt the need of exercise, and was looking around at the circle behind him to give them a chance to back him up, when it happened. I told you a minute ago that I wished you could have seen that boy, as I saw him that night, standing there in that tavern doorway. You see, he’d come in so quietly that nobody had heard him come in just in time to hear the Judge’s last words. And when the Judge turned around he looked full into that boy’s eyes.

“Oh, he got his, good and plenty! I didn’t watch him very closely because it was hard for me to take my eyes off the white face of that boy at the door. But I did see that he went pretty nearly purple for a minute, and I heard him gurgle, too, he was that surprised, before he caught his breath. Then he stuck out one hand and tried to bluff it out.

“’There’s one of ’em, right now,’ he sang out; but he should have known that a man who’s sure of his ground doesn’t have to shout to make his point. ‘There’s Young Denny Bolton,’ he said, ’who went to school with him, right here in this town. Ask him if Jeddy Conway was pretty handy as a boy!’ And he laughed, Flash commenced to chuckle! Oh, there was no misunderstanding what he meant to insinuate. ’Ask him but maybe he’s still a little mite too sensitive to talk about it yet eh, Denny?’

“He thought he could bluff it bluff me, with that boy standing there in the doorway calling him a liar as if I didn’t know it all, yet at that minute I couldn’t help but ask that boy a question. I think it was mostly because I wanted to hear what the voice of a man with a face like his would sound like, for he hadn’t opened his lips to answer that fat hypocrite’s insinuation.

“So I asked him if he had known Conway well asked him if he had had a few set-to’s with him himself. I’m not going to forget how he looked when he turned toward me, either. I’m not going to forget the look on his face as he swung around. And I’m remembering his voice pretty fairly well, too, right now!

“‘Maybe,’ he answered me, and he almost drawled the words. ’Maybe I did,’ he said.

“Why, Flash, he couldn’t have said more if he had talked for a week. He’d said all there was to say, now, hadn’t he? But it let the Judge out, just the same, for he just gave the circle behind him the the high sign and set the crowd to laughing for a minute or two, until the tension was relieved. I didn’t laugh myself. There didn’t seem to be much of a joke about it after seeing that boy’s eyes. It was Bolton Young Denny, they called him and I got his story, their side of it at least, after he shut the door behind him.

“It’s another thing I’d be more likely to understand than you would, Flash, because you’ve never lived in a village like that, and I have. Back a hundred years or so the first settlement had been named for his family Boltonwood, they’d called it but I guess the strain must have petered out. From all I could gather the Boltons had been drinking themselves to death with unfailing regularity and dispatch for several generations back, and I heard a choice detailed description, too, of the way the boy’s own father had made his final exit heard it from that moon-faced leading citizen who did all the talking that made me want to kick him in the face. I don’t know yet why I didn’t. I was sitting on the tavern desk with my feet on a level with his face. I should have bashed him a good one. It’s one of the lost opportunities which I’ll always regret, unless maybe I take a Saturday off some day and run up and beat him up proper!

“He gave me a nice little account of how the boy’s dad had gone over, screaming mad, with the town’s elite standing around saying, ’I told you so,’ and that big scared kid kneeling beside his bed, trying to pray trying to make it easier for him.

“Did you ever see a flock of buzzards circling, Flash, waiting for some wounded thing beneath them to die? No? Well, I have, and it isn’t a pretty sight either. That was what they made me think of that night. And I learned, too, how they’d been waiting ever since for that boy to go the way his father had traveled before him; they even told me that the same old jug still stood in the kitchen corner, and would have pointed out his tumble-down old place on the hill, where they had let him go on living alone, only it was too dark for any one to see.

“Odd, now wasn’t it? But it didn’t come to me at that moment. I never gave it a thought that there was a man who had licked Conway once and might do it again. But I didn’t forget him; I wanted to, that night, but I couldn’t. And I guess I was still thinking about him when some one touched my arm the next morning, while I was waiting for the train, and I turned around and found him standing there beside me.

“Flash, have you noticed how grave he is kind of sober-quiet? Have you? That comes from living too much alone. And he’s only a kid, after all that’s all, just a kid. He startled me for a moment, but the minute I looked at him that morning I knew he had something on his mind, and after I’d tried to make it a little easier for him I gave him a chance to talk.

“He had a big raw welt across one cheek a wicked thing to look at! You’ve noticed it, I see. Well, he stood there fingering it a little, trying to think of a way to begin gracefully. Then he got out the paper with the account of Jed The Red’s last go in it and jumped right into the middle of all that was bothering him. He hunted out the statement of Conway’s share of the purse and asked me if it was true. I told him it was that I’d written it myself. And then he asked me, point blank, how he could get a chance at Conway. He he said Conway had never been able to whip him, Flash said he didn’t believe he ever could!

“Now, I’m sentimental I know that. But I manage to keep my feet on the ground now and then just the same. And so I want to say right here that it wasn’t his words that counted with me. Why, I’d have laughed in his face only for the way he said them! As it was, I said too much. But I thought of you then I couldn’t help it, could I? It hit me smash between the eyes! His face had been reminding me of something something I couldn’t place until that minute. Flash, do you know what he made me think of? Do you? Well, he looked like a halftone print of the Pilgrim Fathers the kind that they hang on the walls in the district schools. And it got me got me! maybe you know why. I don’t. But I wrote it on this card, under your address, and gave it to him.

“I would have laughed at him only he was so mighty grave and quiet. One doesn’t make a practice of laughing at men who are as big as he is not when they carry themselves like that. I kept my funny feelings to myself, if I had any, while I spent a minute or two sizing him up. And that brought me back to his chin back to that big, oozing cut. I had been waiting for an opportunity to ask him about it, and didn’t know myself how to go about it. Just from that you can realize how he had me guessing, for it takes quite some jolt to make me coy. So I followed his own lead finally and blurted the question right out, without any fancy conversational trimmings, and he told me how it had happened.

“One of his horses had kicked him. You look as though you could have guessed it yourself! He didn’t tell you, did he, Flash? No-o-o? Well, that was it. He said he had gone blundering in on them the night before, to feed, without speaking to them in the darkness. It isn’t hard to guess what had made him absent-minded that night. You can’t know, just from seeing it now, how bad that fresh cut was, either. It looked bad enough to lay any man out, and I told him so. But he said he had managed to feed his horses just the same he’d worked them pretty hard that week in the timber!

“It wasn’t merely what he said, you see; it was the way he said it. I’ve made more fuss before now over pounding my finger with a tack hammer. And I did a lot of talking myself in that next minute or two. A man can say a whole lot that is almost worth while when he talks strictly to himself. It wasn’t alone the fact that he had been able to get back on his feet and keep on traveling after a blow that would have caved in most men’s skulls that hit me so hard. The recollection of what his eyes had been like that night before, when he had handed the Judge the lie without even opening his lips, helped too and the way he shut his mouth, there on the station platform, when I gave him an opening to say his little say concerning the village in general. He just smiled, Flash, a slow sort of a smile, and never said a word.

“Man, he knew how to take punishment! Oh, don’t doubt that! I realized right then that he had been taking it for years, ever since they had counted his father out, with the whole house yelling for the stuff to get him, too. He’d been hanging on, hoping for a fluke to save him. He’d been hanging on, and he didn’t squeal, either, while he was doing it. Not one yip out of him!

“So I made him give me back the card and I wrote the rest of this stuff across the back of it. And again I’ll tell you, Flash, right now, I’m not sure why I did it. But I’ll tell you, too, just as I told myself a few mornings ago, back there on that village station platform, that if I were Jed The Red and I had my choice, I wouldn’t choose to go up against a man who had been waiting five years for an opening to swing. No I would not! For he’s quite likely to do more or less damage. I never thought he’d turn up, and I don’t know whether I am sorry or not. But now that he’s here, what are you going to do about it?

“It’s my fault, but whatever you do I want to ask you not to do one thing. I want you to promise not to try to make a fool of the boy, Flash? You’re, well a little bit merciless on some of ’em, you know. It’s not his fault, and I why, damn it, I haven’t met a man in years I like as I do that big, quiet, lonesome kid! Now, there’s your story. It explains the whole thing, and my apologies go with it. What are you going to do?”