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   Chapter 6 JOHN BARD

Trailin'! By Max Brand Characters: 10204

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There is no cleanser of the mind like a morning bath. The same cold, whipping spray which calls up the pink blood, glowing through the marble of the skin, drives the ache of sleep from the brain, and washes away at once all the recorded thoughts of yesterday. So in place of a crowded slate of wonders and doubts, Anthony bore down to the breakfast table a willingness to take what the morning might bring and forget the night before.

John Woodbury was already there, helping himself from the covered dishes, for the meal was served in the English style. There was the usual "Good-morning, sir," "Good-morning, Anthony," and then they took their places at the table. A cautious survey of the craglike face of his father showed no traces of a sleepless night; but then, what could a single night of unrest mean to that body of iron?

He ventured, remembering the implied command to remain within the house until further orders: "You asked me to speak to you, sir, before I left the house. I'd rather like to take a ride this morning."

And the imperturbable voice replied: "You've worn your horses out lately. Better give them a day of rest."

That was all, but it brought back to Anthony the thought of the shadow which had swept ceaselessly across the yellow shades of his father's room; and he settled down to a day of reading. The misty rain of the night before had cleared the sky of its vapours, so he chose a nook in the library where the bright spring sun shone full and the open fire supplied the warmth. At lunch his father did not appear, and Peters announced that the master was busy in his room with papers. The afternoon repeated the morning, but with less unrest on the part of Anthony. He was busy with L'Assommoir, and lost himself in the story of downfall, surrounding himself with each unbeautiful detail.

Lunch was repeated at dinner, for still John Woodbury seemed to be "busy with papers in his room." A fear came to Anthony that he was to be dodged indefinitely in this manner, deceived like a child, and kept in the house until the silent drama was played out. But when he sat in the library that evening his father came in and quietly drew up a chair by the fire. The stage was ideally set for a confidence, but none was forthcoming. The fire shook long, sleepy shadows through the room, the glow of the two floor-lamps picked out two circles of light, and still the elder man sat over his paper and would not speak.

L'Assommoir ended, and to rid himself of the grey tragedy, Anthony looked up and through the windows toward the bright night which lay over the gardens and terraces outside, for a full moon silvered all with a flood of light. It was a waiting time, and into it the old-fashioned Dutch clock in the corner sent its voice with a monotonous, softly clanging toll of seconds, until Anthony forgot the moonlight over the outside terraces to watch the gradual sway of the pendulum. A minute, spent in this manner, was equal to an hour of ordinary time. Fascinated by the sway of the pendulum he became conscious of the passage of existence like a river broad and wide and shining which flowed on into an eternity of chance and left him stationary on the banks.

The voice which sounded at length was as dim and visionary as a part of his waking dream. It was like one of those imagined calls from the world of action to him who stood there, watching reality run past and never stirring himself to take advantage of the thousand opportunities for action. He would have discarded it for a part of his dream, had not he seen John Woodbury raise his head sharply, heard the paper fall with a dry crackling to the floor, and watched the square jaw of his father jut out in that familiar way which meant danger.

Once more, and this time it was unmistakably clear: "John Bard,-John

Bard, come out to me!"

The big, grey man rose with widely staring eyes as if the name belonged to him, and strode with a thumping step into the secret room. Hardly had the clang of the closing door died out when he reappeared, fumbling at his throat. Straight to Anthony he came and extended a key from which dangled a piece of thin silver chain. It was the key to the secret room.

He took it in both hands, like a young knight receiving the pommel of his sword from him who has just given the accolade, and stared down at it until the creaking of the opened French windows startled him to his feet.

"Wait!" he called, "I will go also!"

The big man at the open window turned.

"You will sit where you are now," said his harsh voice, "but if I don't return you have the key to the room."

His burly shoulders disappeared down the steps toward the garden, and Anthony slipped back into his chair; yet for the first time in his life he was dreaming of disobeying the command of John Woodbury. Woodbury-yet the big man had risen automatically in answer to the name of Bard. John Bard! It struck on his consciousness like two hammer blows wrecking some fragile fabric; it jarred home like the timed blow of a pugilist. Woodbury? There might be a thousand men

capable of that name, but there could only be one John Bard, and that was he who had disappeared down the steps leading to the garden. Anthony swerved in his chair and fastened his eyes on the Dutch clock. He gave himself five minutes before he should move.

The watched pot will never boil, and the minute hand of the big clock dragged forward with deadly pauses from one black mark to the next. Whispers rose in the room. Something fluttered the fallen newspaper as if a ghost-hand grasped it but had not the strength to raise; and the window rattled, with a sharp gust of wind. The last minute Anthony spent at the open French window with a backward eye on the clock; then he raced down the steps as though in his turn he answered a call out of the night.

The placid coolness of the open and the touch of moist, fresh air against his forehead mocked him as he reached the garden, and there were reassuring whispers from the trees he passed; yet he went on with a long, easy stride like a runner starting a distance race. First he skirted the row of poplars on the drive; then doubled back across the meadow to his right and ran in a sharp-angling course across an orchard of apple trees. Diverging from this direction, he circled at a quicker pace toward the rear of the grounds and coursed like a wild deer over a stretch of terraced lawns. On one of these low crests he stopped short under the black shadow of an elm.

In the smooth-shaven centre of the hollow before him, the same ground over which he had run and played a thousand times in his childhood, he saw two tall men standing back to back, like fighters come to a last stand and facing a crowd of foes. They separated at once, striding out with a measured step, and it was not until they moved that he caught the glint of metal at the side of one of them and knew that one was the man who had answered to the name of John Bard and the other was the grey man who had spoken to him at the Garden the night before. He knew it not so much by the testimony of his eyes at that dim distance as by a queer, inner feeling that this must be so. There was also a sense of familiarity about the whole thing, as if he were looking on something which he had seen rehearsed a thousand times.

As if they reached the end of an agreed course, the two whirled at the same instant, the metal in their hands glinted in an upward semicircle, and two guns barked hoarsely across the lawns.

One of them stood with his gun still poised; the other leaned gradually forward and toppled at full length on the grass. The victor strode out toward the fallen, but hearing the wild yell of Anthony he stopped, turned his head, and then fled into the grove of trees which topped the next rise of ground. After him, running as he had never before raced, went Anthony; his hand, as he sprinted, already tensed for the coming battle; two hundred yards at the most and he would reach the lumbering figure which had plunged into the night of the trees; but a call reached him as sharp as the crack of the guns a moment before: "Anthony!"

His head twitched to one side and he saw John Bard rising to his elbow.

His racing stride shortened choppily.

"Anthony!"

He could not choose but halt, groaning to give up the chase, and then sped back to the fallen man. At his coming John Bard collapsed on the grass, and when Anthony knelt beside him a voice in rough dialect began, as if an enforced culture were brushed away and forgotten in the crisis: "Anthony, there ain't no use in followin' him!"

"Where did the bullet strike you? Quick!"

"A place where it ain't no use to look. I know!"

"Let me follow him; it's not too late-"

The dying man struggled to one elbow.

"Don't follow, lad, if you love me."

"Who is he? Give me his name and-"

"He's acted in the name of God. You have no right to hunt him down."

"Then the law will do that."

"Not the law. For God's sake swear-"

"I'll swear anything. But now lie quiet; let me-"

"Don't try. This couldn't end no other way for John Bard."

"Is that your real name?"

"Yes. Now listen, Anthony, for my time's short."

He closed his eyes as if fighting silently for strength.

Then: "When I was a lad like you, Anthony-" That was all. The massive body relaxed; the head fell back into the dewy grass. Anthony pressed his head against the breast of John Bard and it seemed to him that there was still a faint pulse. With his pocket knife he ripped away the coat from the great chest and then tore open the shirt. On the expanse of the hairy chest there was one spot from which the purple blood welled; a deadly place for a wound, and yet the bleeding showed that there must still be life.

He had no chance to bind the wound, for John Bard opened his eyes again and said, as if in his dream he had still continued his tale to Anthony.

"So that's all the story, lad. Do you forgive me?"

"For what, sir? In God's name, for what?"

"Damnation! Tell me; do you forgive John Bard?"

He did not hear the answer, for he murmured: "Even Joan would forgive," and died.

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