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Red Sky at Morning
IF THERE ARE GHOSTS on the island of Manhattan they walk not in its garish midnights but in the long hour before sunrise. That is the time when life's tide is said to ebb, so that strong men weaken and sick men die—the hour of the false dawn when Hamlet's restless father returned to gibber on the battlements of Elsinore.
Manhattan slept, with no dead kings to haunt her turrets and no cheerful cockcrow to send them scurrying. Business had been so bad that night that Mr. Solomon Rosen slept also, his head pillowed on his arms across the wheel of his taxicab, lulled by the diminishing patter of rain on the roof.
He awoke with a start to find an apparition beside him—a remarkably solid apparition that weighed upon his running board. A low harsh voice spoke in his ear—"Follow that hack!"
Sol Rosen peered sleepily at a man in a badly fitting blue overcoat, a harried-looking young man whose breath was heavy with stale tobacco and whose eyes were weary and bloodshot. Sol had never won any silver cups for quickness of thought and at five o'clock of à wet morning he was slower than usual. He blinked and asked, "Why?"
"This is why!" The man in the overcoat displayed his cupped hand. It held a five-dollar bill, and not a silver badge as Sol had somehow guessed. The stranger was pointing across Broadway to the cab rank in front of the Hotel Harthorn. "Tail him—get going!"
He got inside and Sol kicked the starter. Then he noticed that not one but two taxicabs were pulling away from the canopy at the hotel entrance. "Which one," Sol wanted to know, "the Yellow?"
"Never mind the yellow one," his passenger ordered. "Tail the Checker, the one in front, and don't lose him."
Sol got his cold motor going, roared into an illegal U-turn and rolled southward on Broadway about half a block behind the two other taxis. The rain had stopped and the murkiness of the night had paled to the point where his headlamps were almost useless. The taxis ahead passed Seventy-second, where around the deserted subway entrance the wind whipped listlessly at scattered newspapers. There were no stop lights at this hour and they went steadily on. Sol Rosen was just beginning to hope that this was to be a long and lucrative haul when the two cars ahead swerved suddenly eastward toward the park on Sixty-fifth Street.
Sol followed, with a screech of tires on the wet pavement. He put on his brakes as he saw that the foremost driver was slowing down in the middle of the block.
"Go on to the corner and pull up!" instructed his passenger hoarsely. Sol swung past the other taxicabs and stopped on the corner of Central Park West. The man in the blue overcoat stepped quickly out, handed Sol a bill and moved leisurely away. As Sol Rosen started cruising again he was wide-awake enough to notice that his recent passenger walked as one who did not want to get anywhere. He was strolling aimlessly along, pausing to scratch a match on a convenient lamppost and making it very clear that the last thing in the world which could interest him would be the passengers who were now piling from the checkered taxicab.
As soon as the door was opened a young man in full evening dress had plunged sprawling out, to the detriment of his silk topper. A fat man and a girl followed, she wearing her evening wrap of red velvet hoodwise over her blonde curls and loudly chanting that she "yoost come over from old countree."
There was loud laughter, but not from the tall young woman who now emerged from the crowded taxicab. She was incongruously dressed in a dark mannish riding coat and jodhpurs. Her auburn curls had been caught under a stiff derby and the silk stock at her throat was fastened by a gold pin in the shape of a polo mallet. She was thirtyish and pretty. She might have been more than pretty if she had taken time for a few hours' sleep, or even had lingered long enough at her dressing table to remove the make-up which still smeared her mouth and eyelids.
She stood alone on the sidewalk as the others began laboriously to pack themselves back into the taxi. "Good night, Violet darling," cried the blonde in the red wrap. "It was a lovely party!"
"Even if you did throw us out," chorused a feminine voice from within the taxi.
"Violet likes horses better than she likes us," cried a young man in a high tenor voice. "Violet's queer for long horseback rides in the rain!"
"Good night all," said Violet Feverel. She was sick unto death of her last evening's guests and her voice was thin and tired. She waved mechanically as the carload of departing merrymakers rolled away and then turned to face the second taxi which was pulling up alongside the curb.
This vehicle, too, was packed to the running boards. "Change your mind and come with us!" sang out a young man with a very red face whose whim it had been to ride beside the driver. Somewhere he had lost his black tie and somewhere he had found a milk bottle with a dime in it which he jingled as he spoke.
"No thanks," Violet told him. "Run along—the party ends right here as far as I'm concerned."
"It's our loss!" responded the red-faced youth gallantly.
"Good-bye, then—Come on, Eddie, say good-bye to Violet!" He leaned back and prodded at the protruding knee of a young man who was jammed in the corner of the taxi with a girl on his lap.
Eddie was softly singing a ballad of his own composition dealing with the further adventures of the notorious Miss Otis after she broke her luncheon engagement on account of being lynched.
"When Miss Otis was dead and safely gone to hell, madam—
They found her a spot where the fires were hot—as hell,
As she writhed in the fearful heat
She gently rubbed her blistered seat and cried, 'Madam,
Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today!'"
He was rudely shouted down by a chorus of demands that he say good night to Violet, good old Violet.
"Why should I?" demanded Eddie.
"Because Violet's going bye-bye on a big horsey!" cried the red-faced youth. "She'd rather ride a horse than make whoopee with us in Harlem."
"Violet," pronounced Eddie solemnly, "is nothing but a menace to navigation. Someday the Coast Guard will explode her with d-dynamite. She's an old frozen iceberg, that's what Violet is, But boy! Am I glad right now that it doesn't run in the family!"
Somebody nudged him quickly, but not quickly enough. Violet Feverel had heard. She came over and flung open the door of the taxi.
"Eddie—you swine! Did you let Babs sneak in here—as soon as my back was turned?"
The girl on Eddie's lap raised her head from his shoulder. Except that she wore a white lace evening dress and a last-season's bunny-wrap, she was just a later edition of the girl who now faced her accusingly. Babs had the same warm reddish curls, the same lightbrown eyes. She also had youth, lots of it.
Now she laughed nervously. "Don't be like that, Sis!"
Violet Feverel bit her lip and her voice was thinner than ever. "I told you you weren't going on to Harlem with these—these soaks! I told you to stay home and go to bed. Now come out of there!"
As the younger girl hesitated Violet leaned forward and caught her wrist, half dragging her from the taxicab.
Barbara did not resist, but her face had suddenly gone white as chalk. "I'll pay you back for this!" she said softly.
Her elder sister still gripped her wrist with long painted nails that dug into the flesh. The young man known as Eddie started protestingly out of the taxi but Violet Feverel slammed the door in his face and told the driver to go on. There was a scream of gears and the yellow taxicab rolled on after the first one.
Barbara jerked her arm free. "I'm not a baby—I'm old enough—"
"Back in Syracuse you can do as you like," Violet snapped. "But here with me you'll do as I say. And I say you've had enough gay night life for one evening and enough of fooling around with Eddie Fry. When I left I thought you were going to stay there and clean up the apartment, and then go to bed where you belong!"
"Eddie said he'd wait for me with the second taxi after you'd started," Barbara protested. "It was going to be such fun—and now you had to spoil everything. We were going to a place in Harlem where a big colored woman fries chicken and sings songs ."
Violet knew that chicken and those songs. "You're going straight home, my darling kid sister. You can get a taxi at the corner ."
Barbara stared at the older girl, her lips hard. "I won't!" she flared. "You can't make me. I know—you're sour on everything because you went and made a terrific flop out of romance—"
Violet Feverel struck her young sister across the mouth, as hard as she could.
The marks flamed red on white skin. "Some people would say I had that coming to me," said Barbara evenly. She turned and walked swiftly back down the street.
"Babs!" cried Violet Feverel. But the girl did not turn. After a moment Violet shrugged her shoulders. She wheeled and pressed a bell marked "Office" under a faded sign, "Thwaite's Academy of Horsemanship—saddle horses boarded and for hire."
There was no answer and she pressed again savagely. Then a mild and drawling voice sounded, close enough to startle her.
"You shore got a fast right hand, Miss Feverel."
She whirled to see a long lean young man attired in blue overalls who leaned upon the lower half of a divided stable door. He had sandy hair, a face tan as a boot, and a long sad upper lip.
"Nobody in the office yet—no use ringing," he told her. He swung the stable door hospitably open. "But come on in."
Violet Feverel eyed him. "Latigo! How long have you—"
Then she broke off short. Coming across the cobbles into the dark and odorous warmth of the stable, she caught the scent of rank Burley tobacco.
"Does Mrs. Thwaite know you smoke in here, Latigo?" she asked.
Latigo Wells ground his heel upon a handmade cigarette. He flushed. "Not exactly, ma'am. But there ain't—there isn't any real fire hazard with these cement floors. I wasn't expecting any riders quite so early. You wouldn't tell her, ma'am?"
Violet Feverel pressed her lips together. "Saddle Siwash for me—quickly, please!"
Latigo nodded gravely. "Couple of minutes, ma'am. He hasn't been curried down yet."
"What? Where's that boy Highpockets?"
"Yesterday was Saturday and that's payday here," explained the other. "That colored boy just runs hog-wild when he gets a few dollars in his pants. That's why I had to come down and open up the stable this morning—that and because I figured you might be here to take your horse out. You see—" Latigo stammered a little. "You see," he began, "I wanted to explain about the other night. When you asked me up to your place, I sort of took it for granted—" Latigo seized a convenient pitchfork and sighted along the handle as if it had been a rifle. "I naturally figured—"
"So I noticed," said Violet Feverel shortly. Her wide eyes were expressionless.
"I didn't want you to think I was sore or anything," Latigo stumbled on. "I guess I must have looked pretty silly to you and your swell friends. If I'd known, why, I'd have fetched along the old guitar ."
"Forget it—and get Siwash saddled, will you?" she cut in.
Latigo moved unhappily away down a long corridor. Here and there a horse thrust its long inquiring muzzle over the top of a stall. As always they were quick to sense the mood of the human they knew best.
On the last of the box stalls sacred in this stable to the boarded horses was a card ornately lettered "Siwash." Latigo opened the gate and slapped roughly at the shoulder of the big chestnut thoroughbred who lay sprawled in the straw.
"Come on, Si—rustle out of the blankets!" As the big horse reared to his feet Latigo set about brushing the red-bronze flanks with a currycomb. "You would have to go and sleep laying down, you lazy stray," Latigo chided him. "More trouble than you're worth. If you were mine I'd have you sent to the refinery and boiled down for your grease!"
Siwash danced daintily sidewise upon tiny hoofs and then nuzzled at the man's shoulder affectionately. After a few moments they went out of the stall, when there took place a certain routine disagreement over whether Siwash was going to take the bit in his mouth or not. He finally gave in and champed on it dubiously.
"Next time I'll have it flavored with wintergreen for you," Latigo promised him sarcastically. A light saddle and pad were produced and tossed over the big red rump.
Siwash winced and then leaned back and nipped lovingly at the stableman's arm. He nipped again, harder this time, as Latigo tightened up on the cinch.
"You're a plumb locoed cannibal and you'll come to no good end!" Latigo reached for the stirrup leather and then dropped it suddenly as Violet Feverel came up behind him.
She took the strap in her gloved hand. "I thought so!" she cried bitterly. "Maude Thwaite has been riding my horse, hasn't she?"
Latigo stammered a little.
"Don't bother to lie," she told him. "I'm not blind. I can see for myself that somebody had to have the stirrups taken up two holes shorter than I use them—somebody with short legs." The red mouth curved unpleasantly.
"It must have been High pockets exercising your horse yesterday," suggested Latigo in the tone of one who does not expect to be believed.
"Him? He rides a longer stirrup than I!" She took the strap and snapped the buckle back into its proper place, then crossed behind Siwash and did the same for the off side, as Latigo moved too slowly to do it for her.
"When I come back I'm going to have a showdown with Maude Thwaite," Violet said. "I know she wants this horse to give a little class to her stableful of hacks, but she'll get him over my dead body!"
Siwash was led down the concrete runway. On the right peered forth the friendly faces of the boarders, whose owners kept them in the luxury of box stalls, monogrammed blankets and bins of carrots. Across the way were the dejected tails and the scarred rumps of the rent horses in their narrow cubicles—the horses who were kept here for hire, their mouths slowly growing callous under the pull of every inexpert hand.
Siwash clattered along the concrete, ignoring boarders and hacks alike, for he was an Irish thoroughbred and knew it. He lifted his arched neck and perked up his ears at the burst of fresh moist air which swept in through the open door.
Violet Feverel stroked his nose and then mounted with a snap of her heels. Latigo opened the door wide. "Take it careful today," he advised as she sent the thoroughbred out across the cobbled driveway. "Those paths are still soggy and I'd hate to see you thrown."
She did not answer. Latigo stared after her for a moment and then hitched up his pants. He turned suddenly to see a puzzled colorado-maduro face which had thrust itself next to his in the doorway.
Highpockets' voice was thin and querulous. "Mista Latigo, why you tell me to keep out of sight in the stall? If you're sweet on that white gal, why you tell her I'm too drunk to show up here, huh? Suppose she tell Missus Thwaite and I lose my job?"
Latigo began to roll a cigarette as the stableboy ran out of breath. The big eyes widened.
"Say, you better not let that white gal see you smoke in here—she'll tell Old Lady Thwaite on you!"
Latigo scratched a match on the seat of his overalls and applied it to the handmade cigarette. "That highnosed Miss God-almighty Feverel won't tell anybody—anything!" he pronounced with great finality. "Go on, Snowflake, get busy with the pitchfork. You got work to do."
"So has you!" Highpockets retorted. But he moved disjointedly away toward the stalls shaking his head. Latigo Wells remained at the door letting his cigarette ash fall from unheeding fingers.
As the hoofs of the big red thoroughbred rang out upon deserted Central Park West a man in a tight dark overcoat moved back into the shadows of a doorway, but Violet Feverel did not notice him. She was looking beyond the park gateway to see the glimmering of dawn in the sky above the towers of Fifth Avenue. She drew a deep breath of the damp sweet air and held it.
As they went up the slope into the park Siwash bent his heavy-sculptured neck and touched a velvet muzzle to his mistress's leg, leaving a wet mark on the jodhpur cord. He whinnied softly, remembering mornings like this in earlier and better days, when at Saratoga and Hialeah and Churchill Downs he had been breezed gloriously around the track with only stableboys and handicappers to watch, and with a monkey-like little man perched on his withers and crooning soft encouragements in his ear.
Excerpted from The Puzzle of the Red Stallion by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1936 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Mysteriuos.com.
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