THERE was a spatter of pebbles against the window and the youngster stirred in his sleep. Another, and he was awake.
He sat up stiffly in bed. Seconds passed while he interpreted his strange surroundings. He wasn't in his own home, of course. This was out in the country. It was colder than it should be and there was green at the window.
The call was a hoarse, urgent whisper, and the youngster bounded to the open window.
Slim wasn't his real name, but the new friend he had met the day before had needed only one look at his slight figure to say, "You're Slim." He added, "I'm Red."
Red wasn't his real name, either, but its appropriateness was obvious. They were friends instantly with the quick unquestioning friendship of young ones not yet quite in adolescence, before even the first stains of adulthood began to make their appearance.
Slim cried, "Hi, Red!" and waved cheerfully, still blinking the sleep out of himself.
Red kept to his croaking whisper, "Quiet! You want to wake somebody?"
Slim noticed all at once that the sun scarcely topped the low hills in the east, that the shadows were long and soft, and that the grass was wet.
Slim said, more softly, "What's the matter?"
Red only waved for him to come out.
Slim dressed quickly, gladly confining his morning wash to the momentary sprinkle of a little lukewarm water. He let the air dry the exposed portions of his body as he ran out, while bare skin grew wet against the dewy grass.
Red said, "You've got to be quiet. If Mom wakes up or Dad or your Dad or even any of the hands then it'll be 'Come on in or you'll catch your death of cold.'"
He mimicked voice and tone faithfully, so that Slim laughed and thought that there had never been so funny a fellow as Red.
Slim said, eagerly, "Do you come out here every day like this, Red? Real early? It's like the whole world is just yours, isn't it, Red? No one else around and all like that." He felt proud at being allowed entrance into this private world.
Red stared at him sidelong. He said carelessly, "I've been up for hours. Didn't you hear it last night?"
"Was there a thunderstorm?" Slim never slept through a thunderstorm.
"I guess not. But there was thunder. I heard it, and then I went to the window and it wasn't raining. It was all stars and the sky was just getting sort of almost gray. You know what I mean?"
Slim had never seen it so, but he nodded.
"So I just thought I'd go out," said Red.
They walked along the grassy side of the concrete road that split the panorama right down the middle all the way down to where it vanished among the hills. It was so old that Red's father couldn't tell Red when it had been built. It didn't have a crack or a rough spot in it.
Red said, "Can you keep a secret?"
"Sure, Red. What kind of a secret?"
"Just a secret. Maybe I'll tell you and maybe I won't. I don't know yet." Red broke a long, supple stem from a fern they passed, methodically stripped it of its leaflets and swung what was left whip-fashion. For a moment, he was on a wild charger, which reared and champed under his iron control. Then he got tired, tossed the whip aside and stowed the charger away in a corner of his imagination for future use.
He said, "There'll be a circus around."
Slim said, "That's no secret. I knew that. My Dad told me even before we came here—"
"That's not the secret. Fine secret! Ever see a circus?"
"Oh, sure. You bet."
"Say, there isn't anything I like better."
Red was watching out of the corner of his eyes again. "Ever think you would like to be with a circus? I mean, for good?"
Slim considered, "I guess not. I think I'll be an astronomer like my Dad. I think he wants me to be."
"Huh! Astronomer!" said Red.
Slim felt the doors of the new, private world closing on him and astronomy became a thing of dead stars and black, empty space.
He said, placatingly, "A circus would be more fun."
"You're just saying that."
"No, I'm not. I mean it."
Red grew argumentative. "Suppose you had a chance to join the circus right now. What would you do?"
"See!" Red affected scornful laughter.
Slim was stung. "I'd join up."
Red whirled at him, strange and intense. "You meant that? You want to go in with me?"
"What do you mean?" Slim stepped back a bit, surprised by the unexpected challenge.
"I got something that can get us into the circus. Maybe someday we can even have a circus of our own. We could be the biggest circus-fellows in the world. That's if you want to go in with me. Otherwise—Well, I guess I can do it on my own. I just thought: Let's give good old Slim a chance."
The world was strange and glamorous, and Slim said, "Sure thing, Red. I'm in! What is it, huh, Red? Tell me what it is."
"Figure it out. What's the most important thing in circuses?"
Slim thought desperately. He wanted to give the right answer. Finally, he said, "Acrobats?"
"Holy Smokes! I wouldn't go five steps to look at acrobats."
"I don't know then."
"Animals, that's what! What's the best side-show? Where are the biggest crowds? Even in the main rings the best acts are animal acts." There was no doubt in Red's voice.
"Do you think so?"
"Everyone thinks so. You ask anyone. Anyway, I found animals this morning. Two of them."
"And you've got them?"
"Sure. That's the secret. Are you telling?"
"Of course not."
"Okay. I've got them in the barn. Do you want to see them?"
They were almost at the barn; its huge open door black. Too black. They had been heading there all the time. Slim stopped in his tracks.
He tried to make his words casual. "Are they big?"
"Would I fool with them if they were big? They can't hurt you. They're only about so long. I've got them in a cage."
They were in the barn now and Slim saw the large cage suspended from a hook in the roof. It was covered with stiff canvas.
Red said, "We used to have some bird there or something. Anyway, they can't get away from there. Come on, let's go up to the loft."
They clambered up the wooden stairs and Red hooked the cage toward them.
Slim pointed and said, "There's sort of a hole in the canvas."
Red frowned. "How'd that get there?" He lifted the canvas, looked in, and said, with relief, "They're still there."
"The canvas appeared to be burned," worried Slim.
"You want to look, or don't you?"
Slim nodded slowly. He wasn't sure he wanted to, after all. They might be—
But the canvas had been jerked off and there they were. Two of them, the way Red said. They were small, and sort of disgusting-looking. The animals moved quickly as the canvas lifted and were on the side toward the youngsters. Red poked a cautious finger at them.
"Watch out," said Slim, in agony.
"They don't hurt you," said Red. "Ever see anything like them?"
"Can't you see how a circus would jump at a chance to have these?"
"Maybe they're too small for a circus."
Red looked annoyed. He let go the cage which swung back and forth pendulum-fashion. "You're just trying to back out, aren't you?"
"No, I'm not. It's just—"
"They're not too small, don't worry. Right now, I've only got one worry."
"Well, I've got to keep them till the circus comes, don't I? I've got to figure out what to feed them meanwhile."
The cage swung and the little trapped creatures clung to its bars, gesturing at the youngsters with queer, quick motions—almost as though they were intelligent.