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A large subterranean chamber strongly acrid with the smell of horseflesh, loud and resonant with the snorting and stamping of horses. In one corner an alcove hewn out of solid concrete, and in the alcove a smithy. Its forge was violently red, and fireflies of sparks darted about. A half-naked pigmy with oily black skin and preposterous biceps hammered like Thor's little brother on metal which curved sullenly under his rhythmic blows. The low flat ceiling, the naked walls, framed the chamber in stone.... This might be Pegasus, this arch-necked stallion champing in his stall, naked and sleek as the day he was foaled. His harem of mares whinnied and nickered about him; and occasionally his scarlet eyes flashed as he pawed the strawed floor with the dainty arrogance of his Arabian ancestors.
Horses, dozens of them, scores of them; tame horses, trick horses, wild horses; saddle horses, raw horses. The sharp effluvium of dung and sweat and breath hung, an opalescent mist, in the strong atmosphere. Gear gleamed before the stalls; brass glittering on oily leather; saddles like brown satin; stirrups like shining platinum; halters like ovals of ebony. And there were coiled lariats on the posts, and Indian blankets....
For this was the stable of a king. His crown was a flaring Stetson, his sceptre a long-barreled Colt pistol, his domain the wide and dusty plains of the American West. His praetorian guard were bow-legged men who rode like centaurs, drawled in a quaint soft speech, rolled cigarets deftly, and whose brown wrinkled eyes held the calm immensities of those who scan the stars under an unadulterated vault of heaven. And his palace was a sprawling rancho—thousands of miles from this place.
For this stable of a king with his odd crown and his strange sceptre and his extraordinary guard was not set in its proper place on the plains of a rolling country. It was not in Texas, or in Arizona, or in New Mexico, or in any of the curious lands where such kings rule. It lay under the feet of a structure endemically American; but not the America of mountains and hills and valleys and trees and sage-brush and plains; rather the America of skyscrapers, subways, rouged chorines, hotels, theatres, breadlines, night-clubs, slums, speakeasies, radio towers, literati, and tabloids. It was as remote from its native habitat as the cots of England or the rice-fields of Japan. A stone's-throw away that equally curious domain, Broadway, speared through the humorless laughter of New York. Thirty feet above and fifty feet to the south and east roared the metropolis. Past the portals of the architectural Colossus in whose cellars it lay flew a thousand automobiles a minute.
The Colosseum, New York's new and hugest temple of sport....
Horses, the warp and woof of the outdoors, crated like rabbits over immense distances so that West and East might meet....
It could not happen in England, where institutions take root in their proper soil and, uprooted, die. The fountains of sacred rivers flow upwards only in America. Long ago the brawny men of the West occasionally gathered from far places in a holiday mood to show off their prowess with horses and lariats and steers. It was an amusement of the West, for the West. Today it was ripped up from its alkaline soil and transplanted bodily—horses, lariats, steers, cowboys and all—to the stony soil of the East. Its name—rodeo—was retained. Its purpose—ingenuous amusement—was debased. Spectators filed through iron aisles and paid admissions to sagacious promoters. And this was the largest fruit, the horticultural apotheosis, of the West-to-East transplantation—Wild Bill Grant's Rodeo.
Now in the stable, near the stall of the princely stallion, stood two men. The shorter of the two was an odd creature with a muscular right arm; the left was a stump above the elbow swinging in a gaudy knotted sleeve. His face was lean, his expression was saturnine; whether it had been painted by the black brush of the burning sun or was a splash of something hot in the caldron of his own nature was not easily determined. In his bearing there was something of the stallion's arrogance; on his thin lips something of the stallion's sneer. This was that bitter man, One-Arm Woody—odd nomenclature for nobility! who in the lingo of his caste was known as the "top-rider" of the outfit; which is to say, Wild Bill Grant's featured performer. Woody, whose amber eyes were murderous, possessed the sinewy agelessness of a myth.
The other was quite different, and in his difference equally extraordinary. He was a tall buckaroo, lean as a pine and ever so slightly stooped, as a pine stoops in the high wind. He seemed old and enduring as the Nevada hills; shaggy white on top, dark-brown underneath, and over all the glaze of sharp fresh air and time-buffeted strength. In his face one saw no outstanding feature; it was one with his strong old body, and the whole made an epic figure, like an ancient statue dimly perceived through the mists of ages. His eyelids were strong and brown, and habitually they dropped to cover all but the merest slits, through which frigid colorless chips of eyes stared unblinkingly. This creature of another world was dressed, strangely enough, in the most ordinary of Eastern clothes.
Old Buck Horne! Product of the acrid plains and Hollywood—yes, Hollywood, which like Moloch engulfs all; as dear to the hearts of modern American boys as that legendary buckaroo, Buffalo Bill, had been to the boys of a bygone generation. This was the man who had reanimated the old West. Not the West of Fords and tractors and gasoline-pumps, but the West of the '70's, of heavy six-shooters, of the James Boys and Billy the Kid, of horse-thieves and drunken Indians, of cattle-rustlers, saloons, false-fronts and board-walks and fighting sheriffs and range-wars. Buck Horne had accomplished this miracle of resurrection by the instrument of motion pictures; himself an authentic figure out of the past, he had been romantic enough to employ the silver screen to bring the past to life; and there was not a red-blooded young man alive who had not as a boy thrilled to Buck Horne's dashing exploits with horse and rope and gun in the flickering pictures which raced across a thousand screens the country over.
Two blobs of color. One-Arm Woody, old Buck Horne.
And the wheel stood still.
One-Arm Woody shifted his curved legs, and thrust his hatchety face an inch nearer the brown face of Horne.
"Buck, ya mangy ole breed, y'oughta go back to the flickers with the rest o' the dudes," he drawled.
Buck Horne said nothing.
"Pore ole Buck," said Woody, and his stump of a left arm jerked a little. "Cain't scarcely drag yore laigs aroun'."
And Buck said coldly: "Meaning?"
The one-armed man's eyes flashed, and his right hand forked the brass-studded end of his belt. "Damn you, yo're hornin' in!"
A horse nickered, and neither man turned his head. Then from the lips of the tall old fellow came a soft stream of words. Woody's five fingers twitched, and his mouth twisted wryly. The muscular right arm darted up, and the old man crouched....
They straightened up on the instant, like puppets at the pull of a finger, and they turned their heads with the same jerky motion. Woody's arm fell to his side.
Kit Horne stood in the door of the stable regarding them with level eyes. Buck's girl! Left an orphan, she was not of his dusty blood, but he had brought her up, and his own wife had suckled her at rich breasts. The wife was gone, but Kit remained.
She was tall, almost as tall as Buck, and sun-tanned, and as wiry as a wild mare. Her eyes were grayest blue, and her little nostrils quivered slightly. She was dressed a la mode; her gown was smart New York, and her jaunty turban latest Fifth Avenue. "Buck, you ought to feel ashamed of yourself. Quarreling with Woody!"
Woody scowled, and then smiled, and then scowled again as he flicked the brim of his Stetson. He strode off on his absurdly bowed legs; and though his lips moved no sound came from them. He disappeared behind the smithy.
"He says I'm old," muttered old Buck Horne.
She took his hard brown hands in hers. "Never mind, Buck."
"Damn him, Kit, he ain't goin' to tell me—"
"Never mind, Buck."
He smiled suddenly and put his arm about her waist.
Kit Horne was as well-known to the younger generation as her famous foster-father was to those who had been the younger generation ten and fifteen years before. Bred on a ranch, reared on a horse, with cowboys for playmates, a Bowie knife as a teething-ring, limitless rolling acres of range as a playground, and her foster-father a motion-picture star—around her a Hollywood press-agent contrived to drape a tinsel legend. Buck's producer had had an idea. Buck was growing old. Kit, who was more man than woman and more woman than Circe, should take his place in the films. That had been nine years before, when she was a straight-backed tomboy of sixteen.... The children went wild over her. She could ride, shoot, rope, swear; and, since there must always be a hero, she could kiss and cuddle too. So she became Kit Horne, the great cowgirl star, and her pictures sold at a premium while old Buck slid quietly into oblivion.
They walked out of the stable, up a ramp, and through narrow concrete corridors to a vast wing which held dressing rooms. Over one of the doors there was a metal star; Buck kicked the door open.
"Star!" he bellowed. "Come in, Kit, come in, an' shut the door behin' you.... An' I've got to take that horse-thief's lip! Sit down, I tell you."
He flung himself into a chair like a sulky boy, frowning, his brown hands clenching and unclenching. Kit ruffled his white hair fondly and smiled; and in the depths of her gray-blue eyes there was anxiety.
"Whoa!" she said softly. "You're off your feed, Buck, upset. Get a grip on yourself. Isn't this—don't snarl, you old catamount!—all this excitement just a little too much for you?"
"Stop talking like a prime fool, you, Kit."
"Shut up, Kit! I'm all right."
"Did the rodeo doctor look you over, you old heller?"
"T'day. Says I'm fit."
She took a long match out of his vest pocket, struck it expertly against the back of the chair, and held it to the tip of a slender cigaret he had been rolling. "You're sixty-five, Buck."
He squinted humorously up at her through the fragrant smoke. "You mean I'm through. Listen, Kit, though I been out o' pictures for three years—"
"Nine," said Kit gently.
"Three," said Buck. "I made a come-back for National, didn't I? Well, I'm as frisky now as I was then. Feel that muscle!" He doubled his big right arm and obediently she tapped his biceps. They were hard as rock. "What the hell, Kit—this is soft pickin's. A little ridin', a little shootin', some fancy ropin'—you know how I been keepin' in trim at the ranch these nine-ten years. This racket here with Wild Bill is easy as brandin' a roped steer. Bill'll build me up, I'll get a nice fat movie contract...."
She kissed his forehead. "All right, Buck. Just be—be careful, won't you?"
At the door she looked back. Buck had propped his long legs on his dressing table, and he was frowning thoughtfully at his reflection in the mirror through a screen of pearly smoke.
Kit sighed a woman's sigh as she closed the door; and then, drawing her tall figure up, she strode with a man's strides through the corridors and down another ramp.
Little pops! came faintly to her ears. Some excitement livened her pleasant face, and she hurried purposefully in the direction of the sounds. People passed her—the old familiar people: cowboys in chaps and sombreros, girls in buckskins and short flaring halved skirts. There was the smell of leather, the soft sound of drawling talk, the haze of home-made cigarets....
"Curly! Now, isn't that remarkable!"
She stood in the doorway to the armory—rack upon rack of long Winchester rifles, blue-steel revolvers, targets—and smiled dreamily. Curly, son of Wild Bill Grant—a young man in dusty corduroys with wide shoulders and no hips at all—lowered the muzzle of a smoking revolver, stared at her, and then whooped.
"Kit! You ole son-of-a-gun! Shore glad to see you!"
She smiled again, more dreamily. Curly was as out of place in the Colosseum and Broadway as Kit herself. He was, she assured herself for the thousandth time, good to look at. As he dashed to her, seized her hands, and grinned into her face she wondered if this new atmosphere—with its reek of gin and gimcracks—would spoil him. There was nothing romantically heroic about him; he was not remotely good-looking, and his nose was far too hawk-like for the conventional hero; but there were interesting glints in his curly brown hair which sat his head like a mat, and his eyes were sure and honest.
"Watch this," he cried, and dashed back.
She watched, faintly smiling still.
He stepped on the pedal of a queer little apparatus with his right foot; it was a catapult. He tested it with the ball of his foot as his hands broke open the long-barreled revolver and swiftly reloaded the chambers with big fat glinting cartridges. Then he snapped the cylinder back, filled the alley of the catapult with small round objects, braced himself, and trod quickly on the pedal. The air became filled with little glass balls. And as fast as they skimmed into the air he made them disappear in a puff of smoke and tiny fragments, shooting at them with supple wrist and careless flips of his weapon.
She applauded gleefully, and he thrust his revolver into a holster and then bowed and doffed his wide-brimmed hat.
"Pretty neat, hey? Every time I pull this little stunt I think o' Buffalo Bill. Pop's tole me about him many a time. Used to shoot little glass balls, too, "when he was with the Wild West Show. Only he was a rotten shot, an' used buckshot, so he never missed.... Another legend busted!"
"You're almost as good as Buck," smiled Kit.
He seized her hands again and stared earnestly into her eyes. "Kit darlin'—"
"Buck," she said hastily, coloring a little. "Poor Buck. I'm worried about him."
He put her hands gently away from him. "That ole bull?" He laughed. "He'll be mucho all right, Kit. These old-timers are built out o' rawhide an' steel. Like pop. You just tell Wild Bill he ain't the man he used to be—"
"Isn't the man he used to be, Curly."
"Isn't the man he use to be," said Curly, meekly. "Anyway, don't fret, Kit. I saw him go through the last dress rehearsal a while back."
"Any slips?" she asked swiftly.
"Nary a one. You'd never think the ole hellion was in his sixties! Rode like a red Injun. He'll be swell tonight, Kit, an' the publicity—"
"Damn the publicity," she said in a soft voice. "Did he have a run-in with Woody?"
Curly stared. "Woody? Why—"
There was a light step behind them, and they turned. A woman was standing in the armory doorway, smiling inscrutably at them.
No buckskins here. All silks and furs and scents. This beautiful creature with the lynx eyes, the incredible enamel complexion, the subtle curves of thigh and breasts, was Mara Gay. Darling of Hollywood, star of innumerable successful sex-pictures, three times divorced ... the envy of a million shop-girls and the sweet painful dream of a million men.
Mara Gay ruled a kingdom which had no geographical boundaries and whose subjects were abject slaves. She was the incarnation in painted-rose flesh of a forbidden dream. And yet, at this close range, there was something cheap about her. Or was it the result of the usual disillusionment of adjusted focus? ... She was in the East, resting between pictures. An impossible, insatiable woman with the appetites of a nature-myth and the lure of Cabellian Anaitis. Just now she was obsessed with a hunger for the society of overwhelmingly masculine men. Behind her loomed three of them, faultlessly dressed, carefully shaved; one of them held a yelping Pomeranian in his arms.
There was a little silence as Mara Gay drifted over the stone floor and meltingly looked at Curly, at his big frame, his flat hips, his broad shoulders, his curly hair and dusty clothes. Kit's small chin hardened; she lost her smile and took a little, cautious, noiseless, backward step.
"Uh—hello, Mara," said Curly with a feeble grin. "Uh—Kit, ya know Mara? Mara Gay? Hangs out in Hollywood, too. Haw, haw!"
The lynx eyes met the gray-blue expressionlessly. "Yes, I know Miss Gay," said Kit steadily. "We've bumped into each other in Hollywood on several occasions. But I didn't know you knew Miss Gay, Curly. So I'll be going."
Excerpted from The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1934 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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