Read CHAPTER XXXV - ABANDON of Trailin, free online book, by Max Brand, on ReadCentral.com.

That was all; no comment, no exclamation — she continued to gaze with that faint, retrospective smile toward the fire.  He knew now why she angered him; it was because she had held the upper hand from the minute that ride over the short pass began — he had never once been able to assert himself impressively.  He decided to try now.

“I don’t intend to ride on.”

“Too tired?”

He felt the clash of her will on his, even like flint against steel, whenever they spoke, and he began to wonder what spark would start a fire.  It made him think of a game of poker, in a way, for he never knew what the next instant would place in his hands while the cards of chance were shuffled and dealt.  Tired?  There was a subtle, scoffing challenge hidden somewhere in that word.

“No, but I don’t intend to go any farther from Drew.”

Her smile grew more pronounced; she even looked to him with a frank amusement, for apparently she would not take him seriously.

“If I were you, he’d be the last man I’d want to be near.”

“I suppose you would.”

As if she picked up the gauntlet, she turned squarely on the bunk and faced him.

“You’re going to hit the trail in an hour, understand?”

It delighted him — set him thrilling with excitement to feel her open anger and the grip of her will against his; he had to force a frown in order to conceal a smile.

“If I do, it will be to ride back toward Drew.”

Her lips parted to make an angry retort, and then he watched her steel herself with patience, like a mother teaching an old lesson to a child.

“D’you know what you’d be like, wanderin’ around these mountains without a guide?”

“Well?”

“Like a kid in a dark, lonesome room.  You’d travel in a circle and fall into their hands in a day.”

“Possibly.”

She was still patient.

“Follow me close, Bard.  I mean that if you don’t do what I say I’ll cut loose and leave you alone here.”

He was silent, enjoying her sternness, glad to have roused her, no matter what the consequences; knowing that each second heightened the climax.

Apparently she interpreted his speechlessness in a different way.  She said after a moment:  “That sounds like quittin’ cold on you.  I won’t do it unless you try some fool thing like riding back toward Drew.”

He waited again as long as he dared, then:  “Don’t you see that the last thing I want is to keep you with me?”

There was no pleasure in that climax.  She sat with parted lips, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, staring at him.  He became as vividly conscious of her femininity as he had been when she laughed in the dark.  There was the same sustained pulsing, vital emotion in this silence.

He explained hastily:  “A girl’s reputation is a fragile thing, Sally.”

And she recovered herself with a start, but not before he saw and understood.  It was as if, in the midst of an exciting hand, with the wagers running high, he had seen her cards and knew that his own hand was higher.  The pleasant sense of mastery made a warmth through him.

“Meaning that they’d talk about me?  Bard, they’ve already said enough things about me to fill a book — notes and all, with a bunch of pictures thrown in.  What I can’t live down I fight down, and no man never says the same thing twice about me.  It ain’t healthy.  If that’s all that bothers you, close your eyes and let me lead you out of this mess.”

He hunted about for some other way to draw her out.  After all, it was an old, old game.  He had played it before many a time; though the setting and the lights had been different the play was always the same — a man, and a woman.

She was explaining:  “And it is a mess.  Maybe you could get out after droppin’ Calamity, because it was partly self-defence, but there ain’t nothin’ between here and God that can get you off from liftin’ a hoss.  No, sir, not even returning the hoss won’t do no good.  I know!  The only thing is speed — and a thousand miles east of here you can stop ridin’.”

He found the thing to say, and he made his voice earnest and low to give the words wing and sharpness; it was like the bum of the bow string after the arrow is launched, so tense was the tremor of his tone.

“There are two reasons why I can’t leave.  The first is Drew.  I must get back to him.”

“Why d’you want Drew?  Let me tell you, Bard, he’s a bigger job than ten tenderfeet like you could handle.  Why, mothers scare their babies asleep by tellin’ of the things that William Drew has done.”

“I can’t tell you why.  In fact, I don’t altogether know the complete why and wherefore.  It’s enough that I have to meet him and finish him!”

Her fingers interlaced and gripped; he wondered at their slenderness; and leaning back so that his face fell under a slant, black shadow, he enjoyed the flame of the firelight, turning her brown hair to amber and gold.  White and round and smooth and perfect was the column of her throat, and it trembled with the stir of her voice.

“The most fool idea I ever heard.  Sounds like something in a dream — a nightmare.  What d’you want to do, Anthony, make yourself famous?  You will be, all right; they’ll put up your tombstone by a public subscription.”

He would not answer, sure of himself; waiting, tingling with enjoyment.

As he expected, she said:  “Go on; is the other reason as good as that one?”

Making his expression grim, he leaned suddenly forward, and though the width of the room separated them, she drew back a little, as though the shadow of his coming cast a forewarning shade across her.  He heard her breath catch, and as if some impalpable and joyous spirit rushed to meet and mingle with his, something from her, a spirit as warm as the fire, as faintly, keenly sweet as an air from a night-dark, unseen garden blowing in his face.

“The other reason is you, Sally Fortune.  You can’t go with me as far as I must go; and I can’t leave you behind.”

Ah, there it was!  He had fumbled at the keys of the organ in the dark; he had spread his fingers amply and pressed down; behold, back from the cathedral lofts echoed a rising music of surpassing beauty.  Like the organist, he sank back again in the shadow and wondered at the phrase of melody.  Surely he had not created it?  Then what?  God, perhaps.  For her lips parted to a smile that was suggested rather than seen, a tender, womanly sweetness that played about her mouth; and a light came in her eyes that would never wholly die from them.  Afterward he would feel shame for what he had done, but now he was wholly wrapped in the new thing that had been born in her, like a bird striving to fly in the teeth of a great storm, and giving back with reeling, drumming wings, a beautiful and touching sight.

Her lips framed words that made no sound.  Truly, she was making a gallant struggle.  Then she said:  “Anthony!” She was pale with the struggle, now, but she rose bravely to her part.  She even laughed, though it fell short like an arrow dropping in front of the target.

“Listen, Bard, you make a pretty good imitation of Samson, but I ain’t cut out for any Delilah.  If I’m holding you here, why, cut and run and forget it.”

She drew a long breath and went on more confidently:  “It ain’t any use; I’m not cut out for any man — I’d so much rather be — free.  I’ve tried to get interested in others, but it never works.”

She laughed again, more surely, and with a certain hardness like the ringing of metal against metal, or the after rhythm from the peal of a bell.  With deft, flying fingers she rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and sat down cross-legged.

Through the first outward puff of smoke went these words:  “The only thing that’s a woman about me is skirts.  That’s straight.”

Yet he knew that his power was besieging her on every side.  Her power seemed gone, and she was like a rare flower in the hollow of his hand; all that he had to do was to close his fingers, and — He despised himself for it, but he could not resist.  Moreover, he half counted on her pride to make her break away.

“Then if it’s hopeless, Sally Fortune, go now.”

She answered, with an upward tilt of her chin:  “Don’t be a fool, Anthony.  If I can’t be a woman to you, at least I can be a pal — the best you’ve had in these parts.  Nope, I’ll see you through.  Better saddle now — ”

“And start back for Drew?”

There was the thrust that made her start, as if the knife went through tender flesh.

“Are you such a plumb fool as that?”

“Go now, Sally.  I tell you, it’s no use.  I won’t leave the trail of Drew.”

It was only the outward stretch of her arm, only the extension of her hand, palm up, but it was as if her whole nature expanded toward him in tenderness.

“Oh, Anthony, if you care for me, don’t stay in reach of Drew!  You’re breaking — ”

She stopped and closed her eyes.

“Breakin’ all the rules, like any tenderfoot would be expected to do.”

She glanced at him, wistful, to see whether or not she had smoothed it over; his face was a blank.

“You won’t go?”

“Nope.”

He insisted cruelly:  “Why?”

“Because — because — well, can I leave a baby alone near a fire?  Not me!”

Her voice changed.  The light and the life was gone from it, but not all the music.  It was low, a little hoarse.

“I guess we can stay here tonight without no danger.  And in the morning — well, the morning can take care of itself.  I’m going to turn in.”

He rose obediently and stood at the door, facing the night.  From behind came the rustle of clothes, and the sense of her followed and surrounded and stood at his shoulder calling to him to turn.  He had won, but he began to wonder if it had not been a Pyrrhic victory.

At length:  “All right, Anthony.  It’s your turn.”

She was lying on her side, facing the wall, a little heap of clothes on the foot of her bunk, and the lithe lines of her body something to be guessed at — sensed beneath the heavy blanket.  He slipped into his own bunk and lay a moment watching the heavy drift of shadows across the ceiling.  He strove to think, but the waves of light and dark blotted from his mind all except the feeling of her nearness, that indefinable power keen as the fragrance of a garden, which had never quite become disentangled from his spirit.  She was there, so close.  If he called, she would answer; if she answered------

He turned to the wall, shut his eyes, and closed his mind with a Spartan effort.  His breathing came heavily, regularly, like one who slept or one who is running.  Over that sound he caught at length another light rustling, and then the faint creak as she crossed the crazy floor.  He made his face calm — forced his breath to grow more soft and regular.

Then, as if a shadow in which there is warmth had crossed him, he knew that she was leaning above him, close, closer; he could hear her breath.  In a rush of tenderness, he forgot her beauty of eyes and round, strong throat, and supple body — he forgot, and was immersed, like an eagle winging into a radiant sunset cloud, in a sense only of her being, quite divorced from the flesh, the mysterious rare power which made her Sally Fortune, and would not change no matter what body might contain it.

It was blindingly intense, and when his senses cleared he knew that she was gone.  He felt as if he had awakened from a night full of dreams more vivid than life — dreams which left him too weak to cope with reality.

For a time he dared not move.  He was feeling for himself like a man who fumbles his way down a dark passage dangerous with obstructions.  At last it was as if his hand touched the knob of a door; he swung it open, entered a room full of dazzling light — himself.  He shrank back from it; closed his eyes against what he might see.

All he knew, then, was an overpowering will to see her.  He turned, inch by inch, little degree by degree, knowing that if, when he turned, he looked into her eyes, the end would rush upon them, overwhelm them, carry them along like straws on the flooding river.  At last his head was turned; he looked.

She lay on her back, smiling as she slept.  One arm hung down from the bunk and the graceful fingers trailed, palm up, on the floor, curling a little, as if she had just relaxed her grasp on something.  And down past her shoulder, half covering the whiteness of her arm, fled the torrent of brown hair, with the firelight playing through it like a sunlit mist.

He rose, and dressed with a deadly caution, for he knew that he must go at once, partly for her sake that he must be seen apart from her this night — partly because he knew that he must leave and never come back.

He had hit upon the distinctive feature of the girl — a purity as thin and clear as the air of the uplands in which she drew breath.  He stooped and smoothed down the blankets of his bunk, for no trace of him must be seen if any other man should come during this night.  He would go far away — see and be seen — apart from Sally Fortune.  He picked up his saddle.

Before he departed he leaned low above her as she must have done above him, until the dark shadow of lashes was tremulous against her cheek.  Then he straightened and stole step by step across the floor, to the door, to the night; all the myriad small white eyes of the heavens looked down to him in hushed surprise.