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Trailin'! By Max Brand Characters: 7175

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"It will explain why I changed my clothes after I came home. You see, toward the end of the show a lot of the cowboys rode in. The ringmaster was announcing that they could ride anything that walked on four feet and wore a skin, when up jumped an oldish fellow in a box opposite mine and shouted that he had a horse which none of them could mount. He offered five hundred dollars to the man who could back him; and made it good by going out of the building and coming back inside of five minutes with two men leading a great stallion, the ugliest piece of horseflesh I've ever seen.

"As they worked the brute down the arena, it caught sight of my white shirt, I suppose, for it made a dive at me, reared up, and smashed its forehoofs against the barrier. By Jove, a regular maneater! Brought my heart into my mouth to see the big devil raging, and I began to yearn to get astride him and to-well, just fight to see which of us would come out on top. You know?"

The big man moistened his lips; he was strangely excited.

"So you climbed into the arena and rode the horse?"

"Exactly! I knew you'd understand! After I'd ridden the horse to a standstill and climbed off, a good many people gathered around me. One of them was a big man, about your size. In fact, now that I look back at it, he was a good deal like you in more ways than one; looked as if time had hardened him without making him brittle. He came to me and said: 'Excuse me, son, but you look sort of familiar to me. Mind telling me who your mother was?' What could I answer to a-"

A shadow fell across Anthony from the rising height of his father. As he looked up he saw John Woodbury glance sharply, first toward the French windows and then at the door of the secret room.

"Was that all, Anthony?"

"Yes, about all."

"I want to be alone."

The habit of automatic obedience made Anthony rise in spite of the questions which were storming at his lips.

"Good-night, sir."

"Good-night, my boy."

At the door the harsh voice of his father overtook him.

"Before you leave the house again, see me, Anthony."

"Yes, sir."

He closed the door softly, as one deep in thought, and stood for a time without moving. Because a man had asked him who his mother was, he was under orders not to leave the house. While he stood, he heard a faint click of a snapping lock within the library and knew that John Woodbury had entered the secret room.

In his own bedroom he undressed slowly and afterward stood for a long time under the shower, rubbing himself down with the care of an athlete, thumbing the soreness of the wild ride out of the lean, sinewy muscles, for his was a made strength built up in the gymnasium and used on the wrestling mat, the cinder path, and the football field. Drying himself with a rough towel that whipped the pink into his skin, he looked down over his corded, slender limbs, remembered the thick arms and Herculean torso of John Woodbury, and wondered.

He sat on the edge of his bed, wrapped in a bathrobe, and pondered. Stroke by stroke he built the picture of that dead mother, like a painter who jots down the first sketch of a large composition. John Woodbury, vast, blond, grey-eyed, had given him few of his physical traits. But then he had often heard that the son usually resembled the mother. She must have been dark, slender, a frail wife for such a giant; but perhaps she had a strength of spirit which made her his mate.

As the picture drew out more clearly in the mind of Anthony, he turned from the lighted room, threw open a window, and leaned out

to breathe the calm, damp air of night.

It was infinitely cool, infinitely fresh. To his left a row of young trees darted their slender tops at the sky like shadowy spearheads. The smell of wet leaves and the wet grass beneath rose up to him. To the right, for his own room stood in a wing of the mansion, the house shouldered its way into the gloom, a solemn, grey shadow, netted in a black tracery of climbing vine. In all the stretch of wall only two windows were lighted, and those yellow squares, he knew, belonged to his father. He had left the secret room, therefore.

As he watched, a shadow brushed slowly across one of the drawn shades, swept the second, and returned at once in the opposite direction. Back and forth, back and forth, that shadow moved, and as his eye grew accustomed to watching, he caught quite clearly the curve of the shoulders and the forward droop of the head.

It was not until then that the first alarm came to Anthony, for he knew that the footsteps of the big grey man were dogged by fear. He could no more conceive it than he could imagine noon and midnight in conjunction, and feeling as guilty as if he had played the part of an eavesdropper he turned away, snapped off the lights, and slipped into bed.

The pleasant warmth of sleep would not come. In its place the images of the day filed past him like the dance of figures on a motion picture screen, and always, like the repeated entrance of the hero, the other images grew small and dim. He saw again the burly stranger wading through the crowd in the arena, shaking off the packed mob as the prow of a stately ship shakes off the water, to either side.

At length he started out of bed and glanced through the window. The moving shadow still swept across the lighted shades of his father's room; so he donned bathrobe and slippers and went down the long hall. At the door he did not stop to knock, for he was too deeply concerned by this time to pay any heed to convention. He grasped the knob and threw the door wide open. What happened then was so sudden that he could not be sure afterward what he had seen. He was certain that the door opened on a lighted room, yet before he could step in the lights were snapped out.

He was staring into a deep void of night; and a silence came about him like a whisper. Out of that silence he thought after a second that he caught the sound of a hurried breathing, louder and louder, as though someone were creeping upon him. He glanced over his shoulder in a slight panic, but down the grey hall on either side there was nothing to be seen. Once more he looked back into the solemn room, opened his lips to speak, changed his mind, and closed the door again.

Yet when he looked down again from his own room the lights shone once more on the shades of his father's windows. Past them brushed the shadow of the pacing man, up and down, up and down. He turned his eyes away to the jagged tops of the young trees, to the glimpses of dark fields beyond them, and inhaled the scent of the wet, green things. It seemed to Anthony as if it all were hostile-as though the whole outdoors were besieging this house.

He caught the sway of the pacing figure whose shadow moved in regular rhythm across the yellow shades. It entered his mind, clung there, and finally he began to pace in the same cadence, up and down the room. With every step he felt that he was entering deeper into the danger which threatened John Woodbury. What danger? For answer to himself he stepped to the windows and pulled down the shades. At least he could be alone.

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