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THE PIGEON RACE

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"There are those who criticize Squire Deneher for ne'er buyin' a man a pint whene'er he comes by, but truth is Deneher ain't really as bad as people say. He ain't a man of airs, I tell you, in spite of havin' gone abroad on occasion. He's always come back and, many times, e'en brings ideas that we ne'er accept when all's said and done. Except for the pigeon races.

"One can always go to Deneher's to use the telephone and he's never charged anyone, although 'tis said it costs 'im a pretty pence to bring in the line and keep it repaired if it goes bad.
Not that we have a need to call anyone, mind ye. Still, it's nice to know that if there's a need, we can always count on the Squire.

"There are those, however, who say Deneher uses the phone to stay in touch with his stockbrokers in Dublin and with his bookmaker at Finbarr. The Squire has always loved to gamble, thank God. In fact, thanks to him we have The Beasts. Without the game, it's most unlikely Saint Margaret's would be standin' today."

"I'm sorry," interrupted the visitor. "But what's The Beasts?"

"Strange that a man who's moved about as much as ye seem to ain't ne'er heard of it. 'Tis something Deneher picked up in Spain and introduced here a few years back when the good father at Saint Margaret's complained the church had to do somethin', or we'd soon be without a place to pray. Now, if somethin' can be said for Saint Margaret's 'tis that it's ours, and, secondly, we don't know if anybody anywhere knows it exists. It's been here a long time, that's all. 'Tis rare when someone goes away from here, though, and remembers that, sooner or later, the candles must be paid, or that the door has given way to the weather, or that the priest occasionally has to have a drink with the rest o' us. If ye could be here Sunday, ye'd probably hear the strangest bell sounds e'er. The bell has been cracked for ages, and 'tis only now that Father Fitzgerald is here with modern ideas that someone's gonna do somethin' about it. He tells us that in America, where he's from, no one rings bells anymore, but that there's a Victrola that people play loudly from the steeple.
Sounds just like the real thing, and, unlike the bells that are costly, the record that makes the sound can always be replaced whene'er it's o'er scratched. True, the church may have to buy records to last a lifetime, which costs money, but what doesn't now-a-days? I 'eard tell that, e'en the Holy Bread, the Body of Our Lord, needs to be paid for.

"Not that we look for charity, mind ye. But, if someone gets baptized at Saint Margaret's, the least he can do for the rest of his life is to remember that without its blessed water, he'd probably have to die a protestant - or a heathen.

"Now, if only Moriarty had not hit on The Beasts three weeks ago, the Victrola would already be here, records and all. But he did hit it big and took away thirty pounds which he badly needed. His tab at Callaghan's alone was up to six pound ten. Right, Callaghan?"

The man behind the bar nodded affirmatively.

"Granted Moriarty always pays, what with his extra duties as gravedigger he always seems to have a lil' extra in his vest, 'though he's been unlucky lately. There ain't been much demand to die 'round here. Did ye notice, in fact, that the cemetery on the right as you came down the rise didn't seem to have 'ad much action? Well, we owe all that to the fact that nobody's rushin' to get there and, those who should, are dyin' elsewhere.
Emigration, you know. Poor Moriarty. But, then, he did hit The Beasts, and changed his luck - and his bill. Right Callaghan?"

The publican nodded once again.

"Now, you were askin' me about The Beasts. Well, 'tis a game made up of twenty-three animals, from anteater to zebra. Each has a number, with anteater number one and zebra number twenty-three. You bet on one, or more, and, for ev'ry pence, or shilling, or pound you bet, you get back ten if you hit the right animal.

"Now the good thing about The Beasts is that nobody's allowed to play on credit, so there's always money available for the wins, though weeks pass when nobody wins. The Squire guarantees, howe'er, out of his own funds, that, no matter how much money is won - if any - the winner will always be paid. On the other hand, after each three months, and after expenses, whatever money is left in the fund, minus what the Squire calls a reserve, goes to Saint Margaret's. Thank God for the Squire's idea. Hadn't he thought about it, Saint Margaret's today would probably be nothin' but standin' in the wind."

The visitor looked puzzled. "Wouldn't it be just as easy if the money spent on the game were given to the church directly in the first place?" He finally asked after a long sip from stout pint.

"Now, you don't make much sense askin' that. Where would we get the money for the church? Many who play the game have families, and for them money ain't that easy to come by.

"Now, thanks to Deneher's telephone, we know the winning number as soon as the pools close in Dublin. That is, unless the weather is bad and the lines are down, in which case there's anxiety all over until Seamus stops by with the news on Monday mornin'."

"And how do you figure the winner," the listener asked somewhat curiously.

"Easy. Deneher takes the numbers of the horses that won the major Dublin races on Saturday and adds them up. He then multiplies them by the numbers of horses in each race. When the results come up, anyone havin' the last two numbers of the deal - up to twenty-three - is a winner. I once hit when me number came up.
I'd bet on buffalo, number 02. Won one pound ten for my three shillings. Ain't won since, though.

"Unfortunately no one seems interested in doing the same when it comes to the pigeon races, though. Oh, everyone bets, but it's always against the bookmaker o' the day. Furthermore, everyone, it seems, always bets on his own pigeons - except for O'Neill, who's never raised a pigeon in his life. Which means that whoever wins the race usually makes it big, what with Deneher putting up five pounds for the winner, three pounds for second place, and two for third. We didn't always have the pigeon race, though, but then, when Ryan's horse collapsed, falling on him and crushing his ribs, someone thought the best would be not to have any more races, or we'd soon run out of horses. "Twas then that Deneher came up with the pigeon idea. Those interested would each buy a homer and train it. Once a year, on the first Friday after the first full moon o' fall, each pigeon would be tagged with a wire holding a numbered wooden peg. Later that day, when Seamus makes his weekend return, before resting his bus at Ballsbridge, all the pigeons are placed in cages and sent down to Dublin. To insure that no pigeon is released before others, we buy Maureen a trip on the bus - both ways. She stays o'er the weekend with an aunt who cooks for a Protestant family at George's Square, if you'll pardon the expression. The pigeons are then released under her supervision, honest woman that she is, at first light Sunday mornin'. Few ever make it back all the way, 'though we've had some who've made it ev'ry year.

"Last year, though, there was a big tragedy, 'though we think O'Neill may ha' 'ad somethin' to do with it. Brian O'Rourke, from Finian's Pub, over in Knockmead - you come across it when you leave, for it's just over the next hill - decided to enter one o' his birds, a beautiful one at that, broad in the wing and long on the leg. Many o' us felt he'd be the winner for sure, 'though O'Neill, who ne'er said much, bet heavy, straight against it.
First time anyone e'er bet on a bird to lose. E'en gave odds to Callaghan, who's always been the bookmaker on the race, which should ha' been warning enough. Who in his right mind would ever volunteer odds agaisnt the bookmaker? But, then, odds are odds, and when they're attractive, 'tis foolish not to take 'em. And that's just what Callaghan did.

"I'm tellin' ye. 'Twas a beautiful day for the race. The whole town was down, and if there'd be cattle to water, they'd better fend for themselves on race day. E'en if Callaghan was to lose money on his bookmaking, he'd more than make up for it in trade.
Like I 'ear the French do, we'd even brought benches from home and sat them down in front of the pub as we waited the first bird's arrival. Suddenly someone shouted that one was on the way, though sometimes 'tis 'ard to tell, what with all the sea gulls that blow in on stormy days, though we should have known to think better when the sun shines. But, sure enough, 'twas him, O'Rourke's bird. Callaghan shouted in glee, which is not his custom, as those o' us who know him can vouch, and, to tell the truth, everyone wondered what O'Neill would do what with all the money he'd put in the race.

"The bird landed calmly as if he'd not been aloft long, and at times against the wind. Didn't e'en seem to be breathin' hard. O'Rourke walked towards it when suddenly it happened."

Sean O'Malley took a long, deep breath. For the first time since beginning his story he reached for his stout which had by now become quite warm and, perhaps, even flat tasting. A look of sadness overtook him as he reflected before taking a long and slow drink. When he finished, he looked at the glass as if measuring the remaining contents. He then decided to finish them, returning the glass to the counter, where Callaghan was already replacing it with another freshly drawn pint.

"How was anyone to know that to know that O'Neill's cat, that until then sat peacefully on the seawall, enjoying the sun to 'is heart's content, would suddenly jump and catch the bird? Right on the neck it grabbed him, takin' 'im away where he could eat it in peace. By the time O'Rourke found 'im again, only his feathers and wired tag remained. Naturally, by the time he retrieved the tag, hopin' that by presentin' it he'd claim his first-place prize, three other birds 'ad already landed and their owners been paid.

"Deneher 'd make no exception. There was no prize for fourth place. To this day the're those who claim O'Neill had trained his cat all along. In any case, he ain't bettin' on future races. Not 'gainst us, anyway. He ain't even allowed to play The Beasts.
Which is just as well. We ain't seen him since he collected his winnings. Right, Callaghan?"

The publican did not reply.

The visitor in the meantime looked at his wrist watch. "When does the bus get here?" He finally asked.

"Oh, it will," O'Malley answered.

Manuel L. Ponte
St. Louis, Missouri.
 
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