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   Chapter 2 SPORTING CHANCE

Trailin'! By Max Brand Characters: 11249

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It might easily have been made melodramatic by any hesitation as he approached, but, with a businesslike directness, he went right up to the men who held the fighting horse.

He said: "Put a saddle on him, boys, and I'll try my hand."

They could not answer at once, for Werther's "pet," as if he recognized the newcomer, made a sudden lunge and was brought to a stop only after he had dragged his sweating handlers around and around in a small circle. Here Werther himself came running up, puffing with surprise.

"Son," he said eagerly, "I'm not aiming to do you no harm. I was only calling the bluff of those four-flushers."

The slender youth finished rolling up his left sleeve and smiled down at the other.

"Put on the saddle," he said.

Werther looked at him anxiously; then his eyes brightened with a solution. He stepped closer and laid a hand on the other's arm.

"Son, if you're broke and want to get the price of a few squares just say the word and I'll fix you. I been busted myself in my own day, but don't try your hand with my hoss. He ain't just a buckin' hoss; he's a man-killer, lad. I'm tellin' you straight. And this floor ain't so soft as the sawdust makes it look," he ended with a grin.

The younger man considered the animal seriously.

"I'm not broke; I've simply taken a fancy to your horse. If you don't mind, I'd like to try him out. Seems too bad, in a way, for a brute like that to put it over on ten thousand people without getting a run for his money-a sporting chance, eh?"

And he laughed with great good nature.

"What's your name?" asked Werther, his small eyes growing round and wide.

"Anthony Woodbury."

"Mine's Werther."

They shook hands.

"City raised?"

"Yes."

"Didn't know they came in this style east of the Rockies, Woodbury. I hope I lose my thousand, but if there was any betting I'd stake ten to one against you."

In the meantime, some of the range-riders had thrown a coat over the head of the stallion, and while he stood quivering with helpless rage they flung a saddle on and drew the cinches taut.

Anthony Woodbury was saying with a smile: "Just for the sake of the game, I'll take you on for a few hundred, Mr. Werther, if you wish, but I can't accept odds."

Werther ran a finger under his collar apparently to facilitate breathing. His eyes, roving wildly, wandered over the white, silent mass of faces, and his glance picked out and lingered for a moment on the big-shouldered figure of Drew, erect in his box. At last his glance came back with an intent frown to Woodbury. Something in the keen eyes of the lad raised a responsive flicker in his own.

"Well, I'll be damned! Just a game, eh? Lad, no matter on what side of the Rockies you were born, I know your breed and I won't lay a penny against your money. There's the hoss saddled and there's the floor you'll land on. Go to it-and God help you!"

The other shook his shoulders back and stepped toward the horse with a peculiarly unpleasant smile, like a pugilist coming out of his corner toward an opponent of unknown prowess.

He said: "Take off the halter."

One of the men snapped viciously over his shoulder: "Climb on while the climbing's good. Cut out the bluff, partner."

The smile went out on the lips of Woodbury. He repeated: "Take off the halter."

They stared at him, but quickly began to fumble under the coat, unfastening the buckle. It required a moment to work off the heavy halter without giving the blinded animal a glimpse of the light; then Woodbury caught the bridle reins firmly just beneath the chin of the horse. With the other hand he took the stirrup strap and raised his foot, but he seemed to change his mind about this matter.

"Take off the blinder," he ordered.

It was Werther who interposed this time with: "Look here, lad, I know this hoss. The minute the blinder's off he'll up on his hind legs and bash you into the floor with his forefeet."

"Let him go," growled one of the cowboys. "He's goin' to hell making a gallery play."

But taking the matter into his own hands Woodbury snatched the coat from the head of the stallion, which snorted and reared up, mouth agape ears flattened back. There was a shout from the man, not a cry of dismay, but a ringing battle yell like some ancient berserker seeing the first flash of swords in the mêlée. He leaped forward, jerking down on the bridle reins with all the force of his weight and his spring. The horse, caught in mid-air, as it were, came floundering down on all fours again. Before he could make another move, Woodbury caught the high horn of the saddle and vaulted up to his seat. It was gallantly done and in response came a great rustling from the multitude; there was not a spoken word, but every man was on his feet.

Perhaps what followed took their breaths and kept them speechless. The first touch of his rider's weight sent the stallion mad, not blind with fear as most horses go, but raging with a devilish cunning like that of an insane man, a thing that made the blood run cold to watch. He stood a moment shuddering, as if the strange truth were slowly dawning on his brute mind; then he bolted straight for the barriers. Woodbury braced himself and lunged back on the reins, but he might as well have tugged at the mooring cable of a great ship; the bit was in the monster's teeth.

Then a whisper reached the rider, a universal hushing of drawn breath, for the thousands were tasting the first thrill and terror of the combat. They saw a picture of horse and man crushed against the barrier. But there was no such stupid rage in th

e mind of the stallion.

At the last moment he swerved and raced close beside the fence; some projecting edge caught the trousers of Woodbury and ripped away the stout cloth from hip to heel. He swung far to the other side and wrenched back the reins. With stiff-braced legs the stallion slid to a halt that flung his unbalanced rider forward along his neck. Before he could straighten himself in the saddle, the horse roared and came down on rigid forelegs, yet by a miracle Woodbury clung, sprawled down the side of the monster, to be sure, but was not quite dismounted.

Another pitch of the same nature would have freed the stallion from his rider beyond doubt, but he elected to gallop full speed ahead the length of the arena, and during that time, Woodbury, stunned though he was, managed to drag himself back into the saddle. The end of the race was a leap into the air that would have cleared a five-bar fence, and down pitched the fighting horse on braced legs again. Woodbury's chin snapped down against his breast as though he had been struck behind the head with a heavy bar, but though his brain was stunned, the fighting instinct remained strong in him and when the stallion reared and toppled back the rider slipped from the saddle in the nick of time.

Fourteen hundred pounds of raging horseflesh crashed into the sawdust; he rolled like a cat to his feet, but at the same instant a flying weight leaped through the air and landed in the saddle. The audience awoke to sound-to a dull roar of noise; a thin trickle of blood ran from Woodbury's mouth and it seemed that the mob knew it and was yelling for a death.

There followed a bewildering exhibition of such bucking that the disgruntled cowboys forgot their shame and shouted with joy. Upon his hind legs and then down on his forefeet with a sickening heartbreaking jar the stallion rocked; now he bucked from side to side; now rose and whirled about like a dancer; now toppled to the ground and twisted again to his feet.

Still the rider clung. His head rocked with the ceaseless jars; the red-stained lips writhed back and showed the locked teeth. Yet, as if he scorned the struggles of the stallion, he brought into play the heavy quirt which had been handed him as he mounted. Over neck and shoulders and tender flanks he whirled the lash; it was not intelligence fighting brute strength, but one animal conquering another and rejoicing in the battle.

The horse responded, furiously he responded, but still the lash fell, and the bucking grew more cunning, perhaps, but less violent. Yet to the wildly cheering audience the fight seemed more dubious than ever. Then, in the very centre of the arena, the stallion stopped in the midst of a twisting course of bucking and stood with widely braced legs and fallen head. Strength was left in him, but the cunning, savage mind knew defeat.

Once more the quirt whirled in the air and fell with a resounding crack, but the stallion merely switched his tail and started forward at a clumsy stumbling trot. The thunder of the host was too hoarse for applause; they saw a victory and a defeat but what they had wanted was blood, and a death. They had had a promise and a taste; now they hungered for the reality.

Woodbury slipped from the saddle and gave the reins to Werther. Already a crowd was growing about them of the curious who had sprung over the barriers and swarmed across the arena to see the conqueror, for had he not vindicated unanswerably the strength of the East as compared with that of the West? Boys shouted shrilly; men shouldered each other to slap him on the back; but Werther merely held forth the handful of greenbacks. The conqueror braced himself against the saddle with a trembling hand and shook his head.

"Not for me," he said, "I ought to pay you-ten times that much for the sport-compared to this polo is nothing."

"Ah," muttered those who overheard, "polo! That explains it!"

"Then take the horse," said Werther, "because no one else could ride him."

"And now any one can ride him, so I don't want him," answered Woodbury.

And Werther grinned. "You're right, boy. I'll give him to the iceman."

The big grey man, William Drew, loomed over the heads of the little crowd, and they gave way before him as water divides under the prow of a ship; it was as if he cast a shadow which they feared before him.

"Help me through this mob," said Woodbury to Werther, "and back to my box. Devil take it, my overcoat won't cover that leg."

Then on him also fell, as it seemed, the approaching shadow of the grey man and he looked up with something of a start into the keen eyes of Drew.

"Son," said the big man, "you look sort of familiar to me. I'm asking your pardon, but who was your mother?"

The eyes of young Woodbury narrowed and the two stood considering each other gravely for a long moment.

"I never saw her," he said at last, and then turned with a frown to work his way through the crowd and back to his box.

The tall man hesitated a moment and then started in pursuit, but the mob intervened. He turned back to Werther.

"Did you get his name?" he asked.

"Fine bit of riding he showed, eh?" cried the little man, "and turned down my thousand as cool as you please. I tell you, Drew, there's some flint in the Easterners after all!"

"Damn the Easterners. What's his name?"

"Woodbury. Anthony Woodbury."

"Woodbury?"

"What's wrong with that name?"

"Nothing. Only I'm a bit surprised."

And he frowned with a puzzled, wistful expression, staring straight ahead like a man striving to solve a great riddle.

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