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

Morehouse did not hear the door in the opaque glass partition that walled his desk off from the outer editorial offices open and close, for all that it was very quiet. Ever since the hour which followed the going to press of the afternoon edition of the paper the huge room, with its littered floor and flat-topped tables, had been deserted, so still that the buzzing of a blue-bottle fly against the window pane at Morehouse’s side seemed irritatingly loud by contrast.

The plump newspaperman in brown was too deeply preoccupied to hear anything so timidly unobtrusive as was that interruption, and only after the intruder had plucked nervously at the elbow that supported his chin did he realize that he was not alone. His head came up then, slowly, until he was gazing back into the eyes of the little, attenuated old man who, head tilted birdlike to one side, was standing beside him in uncomfortable, apologetic silence.

It surprised Morehouse more than a little. For the life of him he couldn’t have told just whom he had expected to see when he looked up, but nothing could have startled him more than the presence of that white-haired wisp of a man with the beady eyes who fitted almost uncannily into the perplexing puzzle which had held him there at his desk until dusk. He forgot to greet the newcomer. Instead he sat gazing at him, wide-mouthed, and after Old Jerry had borne the scrutiny as long as he could he took the initiative himself.

“Well, I got here,” he quavered. “I been a-tryin’ to get upstairs to see you ever since about three o’clock, and they wouldn’t let me in. Said you was too busy to be bothered, even when I told ’em I belonged to the Gov’mint service. But I managed to slip by ’em at last!”

He paused and waited for some word of commendation. Morehouse merely nodded. He was thinking thinking hard! The voice was almost as familiar to him as was his own, and yet it persisted in tantalizing his memory. He couldn’t quite place it. Old Jerry sensed something of his difficulty.

“I’m from Boltonwood,” he introduced himself, not quite so uncertainly. “I’m Old Jerry. Maybe you remember me I sat just next the stove that night you was in town a-huntin’ news.”

Then Morehouse remembered. Old Jerry had not had much to say that night, but his face and his shrill eagerness to snatch a little of the spotlight was unforgettable. And it was of that very night Morehouse had been thinking that and the face of the big boy silent there on the threshold when the interruption came. But still he uttered no welcome; instead there was something close akin to distinct aversion in his manner as he drew up a chair for the old man.

Old Jerry felt the chill lack of cordiality, but he sat down. And after a long period of silence, in which Morehouse made no move to put him more at ease, he swallowed hard and went on with his explanation.

“I come down to to see Denny fight,” he stated. “It kinda seemed to us to me that he’d think it strange if somebody from his home town wa’n’t there. So I come along. And I wouldn’t a bothered you at all today it’s gettin’ late and I ain’t got my ticket to get in yet only only I was worried a mite jest a trifle and I thought I’d better see you if I could.”

Morehouse tilted his head again.

Old Jerry gave up any attempt of further excusing his intrusion and went straight to the heart of the matter. He unfolded a paper that bulged from the side pocket of his coat and spread it out on the desk.

“It’s this,” he said, indicating the column that had scoffed so openly at Young Denny’s chances. “You you wrote it, I suppose, didn’t you?”

Again that impersonal nod.

“Well, I just wanted to ask you if if you really thought it was if you think he ain’t got no chance at all?”

The eagerness of that trembling old voice was not to be ignored any longer. But Morehouse couldn’t help but recollect the eager circle of “Ayes” which had flanked the Judge that other night.

“What of it?” he inquired coolly. “What if he hasn’t? I though Jed Conway was the particular pride of your locality!”

Old Jerry’s beady eyes widened. There was no mistaking the positive dislike in that round face, any more than one could misunderstand the antagonism of that round-faced man’s words.

For weeks Morehouse had been puzzling over a question which he could not answer something which, for all the intimacy that had sprung up between himself and Denny Bolton, he had never felt able to ask of the boy with the grave eyes and graver lips. Even since the conference in Hogarty’s little office, when he had agreed to the ex-lightweight’s plan, it had been vexing him, no nearer solution than it had been that day when he assured Hogarty that there was more behind young Denny’s eagerness to meet Jed Conway than the prize-money could account for.

Now, that afternoon, on the very eve of that battle, he sat there in the thickening dusk, unconscious of the passage of time, and listened to the explanation that came pouring from Old Jerry’s lips, haltingly at first, and then in a steady falsetto stream, and learned the answer to it.

The old mail carrier didn’t know what he was doing. His one desire was to vindicate himself in the cold eyes of the man before him. But he told it well and he did not spare himself.

Once he though he caught a glimpse of thawing mirth in that face when he had finished relating how Denny had led him, reluctant and fearful, from the kitchen of the farmhouse to the spot of blood on the stable wall, and from there to the jug in a heap of fragments against the tree-butt. And that fleeting mirth became a warm, all-enveloping grin when he had detailed the climax of the Judge’s prearranged sensation that same night.

He knew then that he had set himself right, and he did not mean to go into it any more fully. It was the changed attitude of Morehouse that led him on and on. So he told, too, of Dryad Anderson’s purchase of the bleak old place on the hill and her reason. But when it came to her wild fury against the paper that had dared to scoff at the boy he paused. For a second he calculated the wisdom of exhibiting the bit of a red bow that had been entrusted him. It, without a doubt, would be the only passport he could hope for to a share of the glory, when it was all over. For the time being he jealously decided to let it wait, and he turned back to the rumpled sheet upon the desk.

“She she’d be mighty disappointed,” he finished a little lamely. “She’s so sure, somehow, it kinda worries me. You you do think he’s got a little chance, don’t you jest a trifle?”

It took a long time Old Jerry’s confession. It was dark before he finished, but Morehouse did not interrupt him by so much as the lifting of a finger. And he sat silent, gazing straight ahead of him, after the old man had finished. Old Jerry, watching him, wondered vaguely what made his eyes so bright now.

“So that’s it, is it?” the plump man murmured at last. “So that’s it. And I never dreamed of it once. I must be going stale.”

He wheeled in his chair until he faced Old Jerry full.

“I don’t know,” he said. “A half-hour before you came in I didn’t like even to think of it. But now chance? Well, this deadly waiting is over anyhow, and we’ll soon know. And I wonder now I wonder!”

With his watch flat in the palm of his hand Morehouse sat and whistled softly. And then he shot hastily to his feet. Old Jerry understood that whistle, but he hung back.

“I I ain’t got my ticket yet,” he protested.

Morehouse merely reached in and hustled him over the threshold.

“Your unabridged edition, while it has no doubt saved my sanity, has robbed us both of food and drink,” he stated. “There’s no time left, even for friendly argument, if you want to be there when it happens. You won’t need any ticket this time you’ll be with me.”

Even at that they were late, for when they paused a moment in the entrance of the huge, bowl-shaped amphitheater, a sharp gust of hand-clapping, broken by shrill whistling and shriller cat-calls, met them. Far out across that room Old Jerry saw two figures, glistening damp under the lights, crawl through the ropes that penned in a high-raised platform in the very center of the building, and disappear up an aisle.

He turned a dismayed face to Morehouse who, with one hand clutching his arm, was deeply engrossed in a whispered conversation with a man at the entrance too engrossed to see. But when the newspaperman turned at last to lead the way down into the body of the house he explained in one brief word:

“Preliminary,” he said.

Old Jerry did not understand. But half dragged, half led, he followed blindly after his guide, until he found himself wedged into a seat at the very edge of that roped-off, canvas-padded area. It was a single long bench with a narrow board desk, set elbow high, running the entire length in front of it. Peering half fearfully from the corner of his eye Old Jerry realized that there were at least a full dozen men beside themselves wedged in before it, and that, like Morehouse, there was a block of paper before each man.

The awe with which the immensity of the place had stunned him began to lessen a little and allowed him to look around. Wherever he turned a sea of faces met him faces strangely set and strained. Even under the joviality of those closest to him he saw the tightened sinews of their jaws. Those further away were blurred by the smoke that rose in a never-thinning cloud, blurred until there was nothing but indistinct blotches of white in the outer circles of seats.

And when he lifted his head and looked above him, he gasped. They were there, too, tiny, featureless dots of white, like nothing so much as holes in a black wall, in the smoke-drift that alternately hid and revealed them.

Faces of men faces of men, wherever he turned his head! Faces strained and tense as they waited. That terrible tensity got under his skin after a while; it crept in upon him until his spine crawled a little, as if from cold. It was quiet, too; oddly quiet in spite of the dull mumble that rose from thousands of throats.

Twice that hush was broken twice when men laden with pails of water, and bottles and sponges, and thick white towels crowded through the ropes in front of him. Then the whole house was swept by a premature storm of hand-clapping for the men who, stripped save for the flat shoes upon their feet and the trunks about their hips, followed them into the ring.

“Preliminary!” Morehouse had said, and there had been something of disinterested contempt in his voice. Old Jerry felt, too, the entire great crowd’s disinterested, good-natured tolerance. They were waiting for something else.

Twice Morehouse left his place at the long board desk and wended his way off through the maze of aisles. The second time he returned, after the third match had been finished, Old Jerry caught sight of his face while he was a long way off and Old Jerry’s breath caught in his throat. His plump cheeks were pale when he crowded back into his place. The old man leaned nearer and tried to ask a question and his dry tongue refused. The plump reporter nodded his head.

Again the men came with their bottles of water their pails their towels and sponges. There was a third man who slipped agilely into the nearest corner. Old Jerry saw him turn once and nod reassuringly, he thought, at Morehouse. The little mail carrier did not know him; everybody else within a radius of yards had apparently recognized him, but he could not take his eyes off that lean, hard face. There was a kind of satanic, methodical deadliness in Hogarty’s directions to the other two men inside the ropes.

Even while he was staring at him, fascinated, that hand-clapping stormed up again, and then swelled to a hoarse roar that went hammering to the roof. A figure passed Old Jerry, so close that the long robe which wrapped him brushed his knee. When Hogarty had stripped the robe away and the figure went on on up through the ropes he recognized him.

As Young Denny seated himself in the corner just above them Morehouse threw out his arm and forced Old Jerry back into his seat. Then the little man remembered and shrank back, but his eyes glowed. He forgot to watch for the coming of the other in dumb amaze at the wide expanse of the boy’s shoulders that rose white as the narrow cloth that encircled his hips. Dazed, he listened to them shouting the name by which they knew him “The Pilgrim” and he did not turn away until Jed Conway was in the ring.

He heard first the cheers that greeted the newcomer broken reiterations of “Oh, you Red!” But the same heartiness was not there, nor the volume. When Old Jerry’s eyes crept furtively across the ring he understood the reason.

It was the same face that he had known before, older and heavier, but the same. And there was no appeal in that face. It was scant of brow, brutish, supercunning, and the swarthy body that rose above the black hip-cloth matched the face. Old Jerry’s eyes clung to the thick neck that ran from his ears straight down into his shoulders until a nameless dread took him by the throat and made him turn away.

Back in Denny’s corner Hogarty was lacing on the gloves, talking softly in the meantime to the big boy before him.

“From the tap of the gong,” he was droning. “From the tap of the gong from the tap of the gong.”

Young Denny nodded, smiled faintly as he rose to his feet to meet the announcer, who crossed and placed one hand on his shoulder and introduced him. Again the applause went throbbing to the roof; and again the echo of it after Jed The Red had in turn stood up in his corner.

The referee called them to the middle of the ring. It was quiet in an instant so quiet that Old Jerry’s throat ached with it. The announcer lifted his hand.

“Jed The Red fights at one hundred and ninety-six,” he said, “’The Pilgrim’ at one hundred and seventy-two.”

Immediately he turned and dropped through the ropes. His going was accompanied by a flurry in each corner as the seconds scuttled after him with stools and buckets.

They faced each other, alone in the ring save for the referee The Pilgrim and Jed The Red. Then a gong struck. They reached out and each touched the glove of the other.

Old Jerry could not follow it it came too terribly swift for that but he heard the thudding impact of gloves as Denny hurtled forward in that first savage rush.

“From the gong,” Hogarty had ordered, “from the gong!” The Red, covering and ducking, blocking and swaying beneath the whirlwind of that attack, broke and staggered and set himself, only to break again, and retreat, foot by foot, around the ring. The whole house had come to its feet with the first rush, screaming to a man. Old Jerry, too, was standing up, giddy, dizzy, as he watched Conway weather that first minute.

He had no chance to swing; with both hands covering he fought wildly to stay on his feet; to live through it; to block that right hand that lashed out again and again and found his face.

Each time that blow went across it shook him to the soles of his feet; it lifted the cheering of the crowd to a higher, madder key; but even Old Jerry, eyes a little quicker already, saw that none of those blows landed flush upon the side of the jaw.

Conway called to his aid all the ring-generalship of which he was capable in that opening round. Once that lightening-like fist reached out and found his mouth. A trickle of blood oozed red from the lips that puffed up, almost before the glove came away; once when he had seen an opening and led for The Pilgrim’s own face, that wicked jolt caught him wide open. He ducked his head between his shoulders then. The shock sent him to his knees, but that upraised shoulder saved him. The force of that glancing smash had spent itself before it reached his unprotected neck.

There was no let-up no lull in the relentless advance. He was on his feet again, grim, grasping, reeling, hanging on! And again that avalanche of destruction enveloped him.

He fought to drop into a clinch, for one breath’s respite, his huge hairy arms slipping hungrily out about Denny’s white body, but even as he snuggled his body close in, that fist lashed up between them and found his chin again. It straightened him, flung him back. And once more, before the certain annihilation of that blow, he ducked his head in between his shoulders.

Old Jerry heard the crash of the glove against the top of his head; he saw Conway hurled back into the ropes. But not until seconds later, when he realized that the roar of the crowd had hushed, did he see that a change had come over the fight.

Conway was no longer giving ground; he was himself driving in more and more viciously, for that deadly right hand no longer leaped out to check him. Twice just as Denny had rocked him he now jolted his own right over to The Pilgrim’s face. At each blow the boy lashed out with his left hand. Both blows he missed, and the second time the force of his swing whirled him against the barrier. Right and left Conway sent his gloves crashing into his unprotected stomach right and left!

And then the tap of the gong!

Hogarty was through the ropes with the bell. As Denny dropped upon the stool he stripped the glove from the boy’s right hand and examined it with anxious fingers. The other two were sponging his chest with water pumping fresh air into his lungs; but Old Jerry’s eyes clung to the calamity written upon Hogarty’s gray features.

Everybody else seemed to understand what had happened everybody but himself. He turned again to the man next him on the bench. Morehouse, too, had been watching the ex-lightweight’s deft fingers.

“Broken,” he groaned. “His right hand is gone.” And after what seemed hours Old Jerry realized that Morehouse was cursing hoarsely.

In Conway’s corner the activity was doubly feverish. The Red lay sprawled back against the ropes while they kneaded knotty legs, and shoulders. There was blood on his chin, his lips were cut and misshapen, but he had weathered that round without serious damage. Watching him Old Jerry saw that he was smiling snarling confidently.

Back in Denny’s corner they were still working over him, but the whole house had sensed the dismay in that little knot of men. Hogarty, gnawing his lip, stopped and whispered once to the boy on the stool, but Young Denny shook his head and held out his hand. He laced the gloves back on them, over the purple, puffy knuckles.

And then again that cataclysmic bell.

Just as the first round had started, that second one opened with a rush, but this time it was Conway who forced the fighting. Like some gigantic projectile he drove in and caught Denny in his own corner, and beat him back against the standard. Again that thudding right and left, right and left, into the stomach. And again Old Jerry saw that left hand flash out and miss.

Just as The Pilgrim had driven him Conway forced Denny around the ring, except that the boy was heart-breaking slow in getting away. The Red stayed with him, beat him back and back, smothered him! With that deadly right no longer hunting for his jaw, he fought with nothing to fear, for Young Denny could not find his face even once with that flashing left swing.

Before the round was half over The Pilgrim had gone down twice body blows that did little harm; but they were shouting for The Red shouting as if from a great distance, from the balconies.

Again Conway drove him into a corner of the ropes, feinted for the stomach. Then there came that first blow that found his chin. Old Jerry saw Denny’s body go limp as he crashed his length upon the padded canvas; he saw him try to rise and heard the house screaming for him to take the count.

He rested there for a precious instant, swaying on one knee. But his eyes were still glazed when he rose, and again Conway, rushing, beat down that guarding right, and, swinging with all his shoulder weight behind it, found that same spot and dropped him again.

Pandemonium broke loose in the upper reaches of the seats, but the silence of the body of the house was deathlike as he lay without stirring. Old Jerry gulped and waited choked back a sobbing breath as he saw him start to lift himself once more. Upon his hands and knees first, then upon his knees alone. And then, with eyes shut, he struggled up, at the count of ten, and shaped up again.

And Conway beat him down.

Even the gallery was quiet now. The thud of that stiff-armed jolt went to every corner of that vast room. And the referee was droning out the count again.

“ Five six seven ”

Head sagging between his arms, eyes staring and sightless, The Pilgrim groped out and found the ropes. Once more at the end of the toll he lifted himself lifted himself by the strength of his shoulders to his legs that tottered beneath him, and then stepped free of the ropes.

That time, before Conway could swing, the gong saved him.

Again it was Hogarty who was first through the ropes. Effortlessly he stooped and lifted that limp body and carried it across to the stool. They tried to stretch him back against the ropes behind him, and each time his head slumped forward over his knees.

Old Jerry turned toward Morehouse and choked licked his lips and choked again. And Morehouse nodded his head dumbly.

“He he’s gone!” he said.

Old Jerry sat and stared back at him as though he couldn’t understand. He remembered the bit of a red bow in his pocket then; he fumbled inside and found it. He remembered the eyes of the girl who had given it to him, too, that night when she had knelt at his knees. His old fingers closed, viselike, upon the fat man’s arm.

“But she told me to give him this,” he mumbled dully. “Why, she she said for me to give him this, when he had Won.”

Morehouse stared at the bit of tinseled silk stared up at Old Jerry’s face and back again. And then he leaned over suddenly and picked it up. The next moment he was crowding out from behind the desk was climbing into the ring.

Old Jerry saw him fling fiercely tense words into Hogarty’s face, and Hogarty stood back. He knelt before the slack body on the stool and tried to raise the head; he held the bit of bright web before him, but there was no recognition in Denny’s eyes. And the old man heard the plump reporter’s words, sob-like with excitement:

“She sent it,” he hammered at those deaf ears. “She sent it she sent it silk a little bow of red silk!”

Then the whole vast house saw the change that came over that limp form. They saw the slack shoulders begin to go back; saw the dead-white face come up; they saw those sick eyes beginning to clear. And The Pilgrim smiled a little smiled into Morehouse’s face.

“Silk,” he repeated softly. “Silk!” and then, as if it had all come back at once: “Silk next to her skin!”

And they called it a miracle that recovery. They called it a miracle of the mind over a body already beaten beyond endurance. For in the scant thirty seconds which were left, while the boy lay back with them working desperately above him, it was almost possible to see the strength ebbing back into his veins. They dashed water upon his head, inverted bottles of it into his face, and emptied it from his eyes, but during that long half minute the vague smile never left his lips nor his eyes the face of Conway across from him.

And he went to meet The Red when the gong called to them again. He went to meet him smiling!

The bell seemed to pick him up and drop him in the middle of the ring. Set for the shock he stopped Conway’s hurtling attack. And when The Red swung he tightened, took the blow flush on the side of the face, and only rocked a little.

Conway’s chin seemed to lift to receive the blow which he started then from the waist. That right hand, flashing up, found it and straightened The Red back lifted him to his toes. And while he was still in the air The Pilgrim measured and swung. The left glove caught him flush below the ear; it picked him up and drove him crashing back into the corner from which he had just come.

Old Jerry saw them bend over him saw them pick him up at last and slip him through the ropes. Then he realized that the referee was holding Young Denny’s right hand aloft; that Hogarty, with arms about him, was holding the boy erect.

The little mail-carrier heard the ex-lightweight’s words, as he edged in beside Morehouse, against the ropes.

“A world-beater,” he was screaming above the tumult. “I’ll make a world-beater of you in a year!”

And The Pilgrim, still smiling vaguely, shook his head a little.

“Maybe,” he answered faintly. “Maybe I’ll come back. I don’t know yet. But now now I reckon I’d better be going along home!”