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Chapter VI. The Big Wager

LUNCH at the Calabash Races was what might be called a sporting affair as it was enlivened by a fight between two aboriginals who elected to settle their differences in sight of the bough shed under which the repast was set out. The local trooper scorned to interfere in the affair, but he managed to change the venue to a spot where the language of the antagonists was, at any rate, mellowed by distance.

Fitzroy, who had no intention of taking the defeat of Iron Cross lying down, was turning over schemes of revenge in his mind. Matters were not improved by a visit from Jimmy the Pat, who poked a blandly smiling face in under the bough shed and said that he would give Moira ten pong (ten pounds) for Iron Cross, which he described as “welly goo' 'oss, welly ni'.” This was rubbing it in with a vengeance and Fitzroy could hardly keep his hands off him, prize-fighter and all that he was.

The only cheerful member of the luncheon party was Red Fred who had been down to worship at the shrine of Nancy Bell and to receive the usual assurance that she would lob in. His informant was of course Bill the Gunner, who had learnt very early in his career

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that an owner, like a nation at war, must always be told good news, otherwise neither the nation nor the owner would go on with the business.

“There's a thing called Desire,” said the Gunner, “that nobody knows nothing about. He might give us some trouble, but he's handled by the Chow's mob and I don't think they'll have a go with 'im. They say he's a disqualified Randwick horse, but if he is they won't want to spin 'im for the few quid they can win 'ere. They'll keep 'im for some other place where they can dob it down on 'im and win a packet. Anyways, even if they do spin 'im, the little mare'll tear the heart out of 'im at the finish. You take it from me she'll lob in.”

“Isn't it funny,” said Moira, “that a man who has sense enough to turn down an offer of a gold-mine would swallow everything told him by such a character as Bill the Gunner? How do you explain it? Even in England I've seen a sensible business man standing outside the betting-ring shifting from one foot to the other, and waiting for a dirty little stable-boy to come and tell him to put a hundred pounds on a horse. Bill the Gunner knows nothing about the other horses, but you'd think he was the turf guide, the way your boss listens to him!”

“I'd like to get even with that Chinaman,” said Fitzroy. “We must see if we can't get at him somehow. They're all frightened of him here — and they are not a crowd that are easily frightened either. I wouldn't much care what I did as long as we could get level with him.”

Just then he was hailed by the local trooper, a well

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set-up young fellow, known as Bismarck (that man of blood and iron) from his readiness to resort to a stirrup-iron when any hard citizen wanted to resist arrest. Bismarck said that because he got seven bob a day, that didn't include being punched and kicked by every tough in the West. As he walked past them, Bismarck'e roving eye lit with approval on the young lady, then he stopped and had a second look at Fitzroy.

“Here, I know you, don't I?” he said. “Wasn't you in the police depot with me? Wasn't you that strong recruit that the sergeant took hold of to show us how to throw a man, and he couldn't throw you? If you ain't him you're a dead ring for him. That was why they sent you to hell-and-gone out at Barcoo. If you'd let him throw you they'd have kept you in town. You don't want to show the bosses any points, you know, when you're a recruit. What are you doing now? Are you in the police force still?”

Feeling rather like Mohammed's coffin, hovering between heaven and earth, Fitzroy explained his position.

“I'm half in and half out,” he said. “I applied for my discharge, but I haven't got any answer yet, so I suppose I am in the force still. I'm on leave just now.”

“Of course you're in the force still. Once you put on the jacket you've got to go on running 'em in until the Crown lets you go. But you might introduce me to this young lady. My name's Frankston if you've forgotten it.”

Fitzroy at once introduced him to Moira, adding that

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she was the owner of Iron Cross who had been fouled in the first race.

“Fouled,” said the trooper, “I should think he was. This is a charity meeting so they will stand anything; but even if the stewards go to work they'd never get the right man. The Chow was at the back of all that; and if this young lady will excuse us for a bit, I've got something very important to tell you.”

Supposing it to be some great racing secret, Moira decided to get it out of Fitzroy later on.

“I'll go over and look at the horses,” she said. “Don't bother to come with me. But if there's anything exciting, don't leave me out of it.”

Drawing Fitzroy out of the crowd, the trooper known as Bismarck spoke with great earnestness and with his mouth about an inch from Fitzroy's ear.

“It's the luck of the world you've come,” he said, “I've got a big job on here. You know this Chinaman, Kum Yoon Jim, or Jimmy the Pat, or whatever they like to call him? Headquarters have got something on him at last, whether it's opium, or receiving stolen goods, or defrauding the customs, I don't know. But I'm expecting a wire to arrest him any minute, and he might put up a very ugly scrap. He's all oil and butter while things go to suit him, but if anything goes wrong he'll draw a knife in a minute. He goes stone mad.

“I daresay you've heard that I've got me own way of dealin' with these rumbunctious coves; but this chap is different. Most of 'em, I just ride up alongside 'em, slip the stirrup-iron out of the saddle as I jump off the horse, and I tell 'em that I want 'em. Then if they

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look like showing fight I stun 'em first and read the charge to 'em afterwards. But I daren't do it with Jimmy the Pat. He's got so much money that if he got out of the charge he'd have the jacket off me for undue violence. I'm senior to you so I can order you to assist me, or if you're not in the force I can call on you for assistance in the King's name. How do you feel on it, brother?”

Fitzroy did not take very long to make up his mind. Apart altogether from his personal grudge against the Chinaman over the interference with Moira's horse, he felt that here was a chance to make a name for himself. His only effort so far in the force had made him look like a considerable fool, but here he had a chance to wipe out all that and to leave the force in a blaze of glory.

“Right you are,” he said. “I'd rather like to have a crack at this Chinaman. Let me have first go at him and if he skittles me, then you can come in with the stirrup-iron. When does the balloon go up — when is the scrap supposed to start?”

Fishing out a telegram from the breast of his tunic Bismarck proceeded to read it out:

“‘Be prepared to arrest pickpocket,’” he read. “That's the code word for Jimmy. We daren't mention his name for fear it would leak out. 'Be prepared to arrest pickpocket on receipt further orders stop.' So you see I can't do anything till I get a later wire. But they must think they've got something on him at last, for I've got definite orders to arrest his mate and to keep him where Jimmy can't get at him. I expect

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they are going to put the third degree on his mate and see if he'll squeal before they take Jimmy in.”

“Who's his mate?” said Fitzroy.

“A big disqualified trainer chap that they call Sandbag because he can drink such a lot. He's mixed up with Jimmy in the opium trade and if he'll squeal we might hear something. Jimmy brought him up here to look after a horse they call Desire that they've got here to-day. There's a little stable-boy here that used to work in Sydney and he says that he looked after this Desire when he was racing in Sydney. He says the horse's right name is Despair. He was a real crack, but he turned unmanageable at the barrier so they refused his nominations.

“This stable-boy stood outside Desire's stall while Sandbag was rubbing him down and the boy said: 'How much do I get?' Sandbag says: 'You'll get a lift under the ear if you want it. What's your game?' And the boy said: 'That's not Desire. That's Despair. I looked after him in Sydney. Take those bandages off and you'll see a big scar on his shin where he cut himself on a bucket. How much do I get?' So, Sandbag said: 'You'd better go and ask Jimmy the Pat what you get.' Of course that settled the boy, for a team of draught-horses wouldn't drag him in to give any evidence against Jimmy the Pat. But the boy came and told me, because he thinks they may frame him upon some criminal charge, just to get him out of the way.”

“Bad at the barrier, is he?” said Fitzroy. “I was wondering what he was doing here.”

“The boy says that Sandbag is the only man that can handle this horse,” said Bismarck, “and they'll get

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leave for Sandbag to hold him at the post in the race to-day. But just before that race I'm going to put Sandbag away where the crows won't roost on him, and they'll have to get somebody else to hold the horse. Anyhow, you be ready to tackle Jimmy the Pat just before the last race — if I get the wire — and if I see him getting the best of you I'll hit him that hard that the money will bounce out of his trouser-pockets.”

Meanwhile our friend Red Fred was thoroughly enjoying himself. He had won a few small bets — just enough to give him a taste for blood — and being utterly unspoilt by prosperity he had drinks and arguments with all and sundry, ranging from shearers' cooks to the visiting Police Magistrate. Always an unassertive man he had been in the habit of agreeing with everybody. Now he found to his surprise that everybody wanted to agree with him. As for racing, about which he knew next to nothing, he had them all eating out of his hand, listening to the words of wisdom gleaned from Bill the Gunner. He had picked a couple of winners for himself, and it is said a man's first winner makes him a critic; his second winner makes him an expert; and the third winner makes him a candidate for the bankruptcy court.

When asked about the chances of Nancy Bell he said, “she'll lob in,” with such inspired certainty in his voice that several people began to believe him. One thing which made his tale more convincing was that he never entered into any explanations or gave any reasons; he just repeated his formula with the monotony of the Roman general who swayed a whole nation by repeating “Carthage must be destroyed.”

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In vain some of the shrewder men told him that really first-class horses were sometimes brought from civilization to these outlandish parts and given a few runs at the uncontrolled scrub meetings just to establish a new identity, with a view to a descent to the heavy-betting coastal meetings later on. Sometimes, they said, these horses might even win a scrub race or two just to give an air of bona fides to their efforts. When the ex-shearer said that he didn't believe people would be as crook as that, he was asked whether a four-year-old did not once win the English Derby.

When the scratching time expired for Nancy Bell's race, the board disclosed'a field of ten, all well-known local horses except the chestnut Desire. All of them had won races of some sort except Desire, who was entered as a maiden having his first start and with what is called a station pedigree, that is to say, his sire was given as a fairly well-known thoroughbred horse, and his dam was given as a station mare that might be thoroughbred. As they turned out about three hundred horses a year from this place, it was hard to identify any of them; for no stud-books were kept and the horses were mostly sold as remounts to the Indian Army.

While Bill the Gunner and the trainer known as Sandbag were busily saddling their charges, Red Fred walked round to the betting-ring. He had no idea of betting more than a few pounds, for after all he was a sportsman at heart and was quite content with the excitement of seeing his colours carried for the first time in his life. When he got round to the ring he was hailed by the Chinaman who, like everybody else, had heard of his luck.

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“Hello, Fled,” said the Chinaman, waving his hand and beaming all over his face, “you lich man now — catch'em plenty station, plenty gold-mine.”

Sad to relate Red Fred, for the first time in his life, found himself possessed of a class-conscious spirit. It had been all right to call each other Jimmy and Fred in the days when he was a shearer and the Chinaman used to visit the sheds with his hawker's cart which was really a travelling sly-grog shop. Things were different now. He would have to start and draw the line somewhere and he had better draw it at the Chinaman.

Deciding that half-measures were no good he said the most insulting thing that he could think of. Mimicking the Chinaman's lingo, he said:

“Hello, Jimmy, you get plenty too fat. Catch him plenty dog, plenty cat, b'long you tucker, eh?” Then having torn up the treaty, as it were, he went on “You make'em book, eh? How much you bet my mare Nancy Bell?”

A Chinaman values his prestige — what he calls his “face” — even more dearly than life or liberty; and being called a dog-eater in front of a crowd was something that would have to be paid for later on; but with true Oriental stolidity Jimmy the Pat gave no sign of his feelings. He smiled blandly and said: “Nancy Bell, eh? More better you back something else. Nancy Bell welly good mare, welly game, but too slow, crawl along all same slug. I bet you ten to one. How muchee you want? You have ten shillings on, eh?”

As they say in the poker schools, the Chinaman had

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seen his bluff and had raised him one, now it was the white man's turn.

“I'll have two thousand to two hundred,” he said.

Two thousand to two hundred! Such a bet had not been made at a scrub meeting since the diggings days when the miners shod their horses with gold and lit their pipes with five-pound notes! Two thousand to two hundred in that crowd, when the gang had already shown in the first race what they would do to win a couple of five-pound bets! The pigs in the fable that ran about with knives and forks in their bodies asking to be eaten were nothing to this callow millionaire who was just asking to have his money taken from him. The Jubilee Juggins at his best was only an amateur spendthrift compared to this man. But it takes much to rattle a Chinaman. Jimmy the Pat wrote out a ticket for two thousand two hundred as coolly as though he were signing a receipt for some washing.