Authors: Jackson Gregory
The Short Cut
Winter Went Its White Way, The Spring Brought A Thawing Sun, Innumerable Muddy Torrents And An Occasional Visitor, The Robins
and blue birds began to troop back to the mountains. Martin Leland was at home, his sturdier steers were in the valleys, Conway came back to the Bar L-M and often visited the Lelands. Sledge Hume rode up from the Dry Lands, fifty miles down the slope of the mountains and was often in consultation with Martin and with Garth Conway.
Warm weather battled against the rear guard of winter, only patches of soiled snow remained upon the north side of the ridges, in the narrow canons and upon the lofty summits of the peaks standing up about the valleys. The early flowers dotted the valleys, more cattle were moved in, and the season developed rapidly. Conway came frequently to talk with Martin, to remain for supper, to chat with Wanda and her mother. And then one day, unheralded, unlooked for, Red Reckless came home.
It was the supper hour, just after dark. Father, mother and daughter were at the table, when there came a quick step upon the veranda, and the joy which the gay springtime had put into Wanda's heart brimmed up and spilled over.
"It's Garth," said Martin Leland lightly. "I expected he'd ride over to-night."
"It's Wayne!" cried Wanda, already upon her feet.
"Wayne!" snapped her father, his face suddenly stern. "What are you talking about?"
"I know his step. It is Wayne!"
Wanda had already run to the door, and flung it wide open. It was very dark outside. The tall form of a man loomed strangely large, dimly outlined against the black curtain of the night.
"Welcome home, Wanderer!" Wanda cried gaily.
Wayne Shandon came in, his big boots dusty with his ride, his red hair catching fire from the light in the room, his eyes laughing, his lips laughing, his voice laughing when he greeted Wanda with two eager hands. He was the same Wayne Shandon who had ridden away a year ago, the same Red Reckless he had ever been.
Mrs. Leland's startled surprise vanished swiftly before her joy in seeing him. But Martin Leland's face went black, his eyes burned ominously, it was as though he had been gripped with a choking, speechless wrath.
"Wayne!" cried Mrs. Leland. "Where in the world have you come from?"
"From a place they call Hell's Annex, seven hundred miles inland from the South African Coast," he laughed lightly. "My arrival timed just to the minute for supper!"
He dropped Wanda's hands with a parting squeeze which was frankly unhidden, strode over to Mrs. Leland whom he kissed resoundingly, and put out a big, strong hand to Martin Leland.
For just a fraction of a second the two women knew that Leland was hesitating, for an instant they waited fearfully, for what he might do. Then he took the hand proffered him, his lips twitched into a hard, forced smile and he said rather colourlessly,
"Well, Wayne, you've come home at last, have you?"
Wayne's answer was a laugh. He seemed filled with laughter to-night. Evidently he had noticed nothing strange in Leland's greeting; he was in the gayest of his gay moods. He had no opportunity to answer Leland's words, for Julia, who had forgotten her usual slow, ponderous method of travel bounced into the room like a wonderfully animated ball at the sound of his voice, and he actually swept the two hundred pounds of her off of her feet as he gathered the big woman up into his arms and kissed her. Then Julia dabbed at her eyes and fled to her kitchen, her emotions finding outlet in an instantaneous desire to make him a pie, Wanda laid a plate for him and supper went on.
Chiefly because of Wanda's eager questions and Wayne Shandon's laughing willingness to tell about his adventures, the abstraction on the part of Martin Leland and the growing anxiety in Mrs. Leland's eyes went unnoticed. Wayne was immoderately hungry as he first frankly confided and then demonstrated, but he found opportunity between mouthfuls to draw, in his sketchy way, the series of pictures which made up the year of his wanderings. He had travelled from New York to London, he had whizzed through Paris and dipped into Baden, he had been seasick on a Mediterranean which wasn't blue, he had barked his shins on a pyramid, he had been swindled out of a ridiculously large sum of money by a little scientist in green spectacles who was out on a mummy digging expedition, and he had gone into the interior after big game. He had managed to take in a Derby and to pick a winner, he had made Monte Carlo recognise that he had come,-although he did not go into detail as to the manner of his departure,-and he had brought home a present for everybody. The skin he had taken from a lion somewhere in some remote jungle to sprawl, rug fashion in Wanda's room, where it created no little havoc in the furniture arrangement and finally caused the dressing table to be shifted to a corner to make place for the enormous, gaping head with the fierce eyes; an Indian shawl for Mrs. Leland, selected evidently for size and brilliance of pattern, very nearly large enough to carpet the dining room and of an astonishing combination of dark greens and riotous reds and royal purples; an ornate scarf pin for Martin Leland who had as much use for a scarf pin as a Mohammedan for a Bible; an exquisite set of chessmen for Garth purchased with a quick eye to the subtle art which had gone into their carving and with a fine disregard for the fact that Garth had existed for thirty odd years without learning that the curveting progress of a knight is in any way different from the ecclesiastical slant of a bishop, completed the assortment of presents.
Garth himself came in as they were pushing back their chairs from the table, throwing open the door with a merry, "Hello, folks," on his lips. Then as he caught sight of Wayne who had leaped up and swung about he stared, suddenly speechless, his mouth dropping open.
"Well, Garth, old boy," cried Wayne heartily. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
Garth came forward then swiftly, his hand out-stretched. But his eyes were still startled rather than glad, and they passed his cousin turning, full of question, to Martin Leland.
"Of course I'm glad," he said, his voice a little uncertain. And then, laughing, "You just surprised me out of my senses. Why didn't you write that you were coming?"
"Because I'd rather travel three thousand miles to tell you about it than write a letter. I'm amazingly glad to see you. How's everything? How is the range making out?"
"Fine," Garth answered quickly. "You have come to stay? You will be running the outfit yourself now?"
"Business to-morrow," retorted Wayne lightly. "It is after sundown and business should be asleep."
"And does it wake at sunup?" Garth returned with an attempt at Wayne's bantering mood, although a little suspicion of venom lay under the words.
"I had a Mexican friend once," grinned Wayne by way of answer, "who was the wisest man I ever saw. He used to say, 'The day is made to rest, the night to sleep!' We will give our attention to Manana when Manana comes. Wanda!" he cried suddenly in the old impulsive way, "will you play something for me?"
Wayne and Wanda went to the piano. Mrs. Leland watched them, her face a little troubled, a little wistful. Garth and Martin Leland, after one swift exchange of glances, rose and went to the rancher's room where they remained for a long time. When at last they returned to the living room Leland glanced curiously at Wayne. He was sitting with Wanda upon the sofa under the big wall lamp, examining her pictures. Garth approached the sofa abruptly.
"We'd better be hitting the trail, Wayne, hadn't we?" he asked. "It's nearly ten o'clock and you remember it's six miles to bed."
Reluctantly Wayne Shandon said his good nights, calling in to Julia that he was going to expect a pie the next time he came, which would be to-morrow if Garth would let him, and the two men went out to their horses. Wanda, bright and happy, waved to the departing horsemen from the door and came back into the room to drop naturally into the silence which had fallen over her mother and father.
Long that night Wanda stared out through the darkness which lay about the orchard with no thought of sleep. She had the feeling that no one in the house was asleep yet, not even Julia whom she could hear now and then moving as softly as physical conditions permitted in her room. That her father and mother were awake, she knew from the drone of their voices coming to her indistinctly.
The spirit of restless anxiety falling upon a household is a thing to be felt through stick and stone and mortar. There had been no such spirit here to-night until Red Reckless had come home. He had not brought it with him, he had brought only his sheer madness of exuberant life, and yet he had left this other thing behind him. Wanda wondered what thoughts, what fears or evil premonitions troubled those other unsleeping brains.
Her own thoughts fled back a year and clung fearfully about the revolver with the pearl grip. She knew that the murder of his brother still remained a mystery and that people do not like mysteries to go long without solution. MacKelvey was sheriff, it was his duty, and it was his habit, to bring some man to book for every crime committed in the county. It was quite possible that the sheriff had been playing a waiting game throughout the year, and that he was waiting for this man to come back as he must do soon or late.
Meanwhile the man who was so vividly in Wanda's thoughts rode through the silent night with his cousin, drinking deep of the peace of the starlit night, finding an old familiar music in the hammering of his horse's hoofs on the grassy hills. Silent himself while thinking of other days and other rides, he did not notice how silent Garth was. They topped the rocky ridge which stood as boundary line between the two ranges, and swerved westward taking the long curve to the Crossing, welcomed back to the home outfit by the great booming voice of the distant river. Another mile and the river itself, flashing, turbulent molten silver, swollen with the wet winter in the mountains, swept shouting past them.
They turned upward along the river and raced wordlessly the greater part of the remaining half mile to the Bar L-M corrals. When they drew rein in the wide clearing in which stood range house, bunk house, stables and corrals, there was no spark of light about. They unsaddled swiftly, turned their horses loose with a resounding slap to send them out toward the little enclosed pasture, and went up to the range house. At the door of the men's quarters Wayne stopped.
"I think I'll drop in and say hello to the boys," he remarked, already at the door.
"Are you crazy?" cried Garth. "They've been asleep two hours, man. And they've got a big day's work ahead of them to-morrow."
"Oh, shut up, Garth," laughed Wayne good naturedly. "Don't you ever think of anything but work? Come ahead, and watch me bring 'em to life!"
He flung open the door and entered, Garth following in stony silence. It was dark within the long, narrow room, although the starlight gleamed feebly through the dirty window panes. Wayne found the lantern upon the nail where it had hung when he was a boy, lighted it, and turned the wick low so that there was only a wan light in the bunk house.
"Where's Big Bill's bunk?" he whispered to Garth.
Chuckling softly he drew near the bunk which Garth indicated against the wall at the far end of the room. He leaned forward, stooping low, peering into the shadows. Big Bill was fast asleep, his great, deep lungs expelling his breath regularly and mightily, his head with its touseled ink black hair half hidden by the hairy arm flung up over it. Wayne tiptoed away from the bunk, moved two chairs further back against the other wall, and still chuckling with vastly amused anticipation, again approached Big Bill's bedside.
He put out his hands slowly, gently, until they slipped into Big Bill's arm pits. Then, his laughter suddenly booming out he bunched his muscles and a black haired giant of a man in shirt and underdrawers was jerked floundering out of his bunk to the middle of the room.
Big Bill's mighty roar of mingled astonishment and anger brought a dozen cowboys leaping out of their bunks. In the dimly lighted room their blinking eyes made out the forms of two men struggling, one in his night dress, the other in hat and boots. One was Big Bill, for his roar was an unmistakable as the roar of summer thunder. But the other?
"I've been hungering to get my hands on you for a year!" came the laughing voice of the man in hat and boots. "You said that you could roll me, Bill. Now go to it!"
He lifted the mighty body of the struggling, half wakened cowboy clean off the floor, carried him across the room and slammed him down in a chair.
"It's Red Reckless!" cried a voice from the group of stupefied men. "He's come home!"
"You ol' son-of-a-gun!" bellowed Big Bill, half in the surly anger which is the natural right of a man rudely awakened, half in tremulous joy. "Wait ontil I git my eyes open good an' I'll roll you like you was dough an' I'm makin' biscuits out'n you!"
Evidently he had his eyes "open good" before he had done talking. He was upon his feet, the big, swaying body oddly like a clumsy black bear's, his big hands lifted in front of him. And then he threw himself forward, close to two hundred and fifty pounds of brawn and bone hurled like a boulder from a catapult. Some one had turned up the lantern wick. The black head and the red head from which the hat had dropped came together, there was the thud of two strong bodies meeting with an impact that brought a little coughing grunt from each, and Red Reckless had done what any man must do before such a thunderbolt. He was flung backward, went down, and the two big bodies struck hard upon the bare floor. And above the crash of the falling bodies there were two other sounds, Big Bill's grunt, and the laughter of Red Reckless.