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Authors: Jackson Gregory

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They were down, and Big Bill was topmost. But by the laws of the game a man must be forced back until his two shoulders touch the floor before he is beaten. Wayne Shandon's left shoulder was still two inches from the floor.

"You would wake a man up," grumbled Big Bill with that fierceness of tone which spoke a moment of rare delight.

"I'm going to show you something, Bill," gasped Wayne, half choked with the breath driven out of his lungs by the great bulk on top of him and by the laughter within his soul which had not been driven out. "Something I learned from a Jap about three feet high. It cost me a hundred dollars and a broken collar bone. I'll let you off easier, Bill."

The light was none too good, perhaps the boys were not yet wide awake. They didn't know how the trick was done, and it wasn't at all clear to Big Bill.

Wayne seemed to grow very limp beneath his hard hands and watchful eyes. Ready for trickery Big Bill, while he bore down hard on the left shoulder, and wrenched and twisted at the corded neck, expected anything. He had considerably less respect for a Jap than for a horse, looking upon the race as mimicking apes and not men at all, and he had no wish to be bested by a Jap trick. Yet Big Bill didn't understand.

Somehow Wayne Shandon slipping out of Bill's grasp like an eel through its native mud, had run an arm under his left arm pit, around his neck, over his right shoulder. Wayne's left hand leaped to Big Bill's right wrist. Bill felt that his neck was breaking, that his right arm was broken. And then he knew that Wayne was upon his knees, that his own two hundred and fifty pounds of big battling body were lifted high from the floor, that he was jerked sideways and slammed down. And then the boys were laughing and Wayne stood over him, laughing too, and he knew that his two big shoulder blades had struck the floor together.

"It's a damn' Jap trick," he muttered, more than half angry now, flinging himself to his feet. "White man's fightin' I c'n lick every inch of you from red hair to toe nails."

But Red Reckless was laughing and shaking hands all round and Big Bill found no one to listen to the explanations he made. One after another the owner of the outfit greeted warmly the men who were working for him. Then he swung about, and went back to Big Bill.

"Shake, Bill," he cried. "It was rather a mean trick to do you up to-night but I couldn't wait until morning. I'll give you another chance when you like."

Big Bill grinned and his hard brown hand shut tight about Wayne's.

"There'll be lots of chances," he said shortly, his voice fierce, his black eyes very gentle. "You've come to stay, ain't you, Red?"

A look of vast disgust stole over Garth Conway's face.

"It's Bill and Red as if they're all dogs in one kennel," he muttered. "It isn't hard to forecast what's going to happen to a range with a boss like that!"

He waited a little restlessly for Wayne to finish the conversation into which he had entered with the crowd of cowboys who seemed to have forgotten that they had a day's work before them. But Wayne Shandon, too, seemed to have forgotten. He was half sitting on the table, one leg swinging, his quick hands rolling a cigarette from the "makings" proffered by Tony Harris, his laughing eyes filled with the joy of home coming, his tongue already busied with the answering of many rapid fire questions. No, he hadn't seen all of the world; it was bigger than they'd think. But he had played "gentleman's poker" with club dudes in London, he had hunted with niggers and potted many strange things from an alligator to a cow elephant, he had seen the pyramids-

While Garth lingered at the door, the other men, crowding closer to the man at the table, grew into a charmed circle about him, a picturesque congregation in their underclothes of grey and white and washed out pinks and blues. Within five minutes after the defeat of Big Bill every man of them was either making or smoking a cigarette with all thought of their tumbled bunks forgotten. There were many demands for first hand information concerning wild niggers and pyramids and the ways of the jungle; there were many exclamations testifying in mild profanity to startled wonderment. At last Garth, turning away, called out,

"I say, Wayne, you mustn't forget it's getting late. There's a big day's work for the boys to-morrow."

"This is my home coming celebration, Garth," Wayne laughed back at him. "Hang the work, man. We'll have a half holiday to-morrow if the whole outfit goes to pot."

Anything further Garth had to remark he said angrily to himself as he strode away to the range house. And Wayne, with no further interruption, explained how the games ran at Monte Carlo. Finally, since there was nothing in the world he had learned to love as he loved horses, he came to speak of the Derby.

"The greatest race in the world," he cried, slapping his thigh enthusiastically. "Just because it's the straightest and the stakes are right and the horses are as beautiful as women and as swift as lightning!"

One o'clock came and they were talking horses and racing, the men now upon common ground, their eyes bright with the tale retold of the Kings' race. And before it was two Red Reckless was standing erect upon his two feet, his eyes brighter than the rest, his voice leaping out eagerly as he cried:

* * *

The window shades in the study were half drawn so that in the late afternoon the room was shadowy. From the fireplace crackling flames cast wavering gleams across the polished oaken table top and the heavy mission furniture. Leland had not stirred from the chair into which he had sunk after Wayne Shandon's going. Shandon had been gone an hour; he had met Garth Conway at the bridge and now Garth was with Leland.

There was no longer in the old man's eye or bearing a hint of the battle which he had fought all day. He had gone through the hours of his inner struggle and as it had ended three months ago so had it ended to-day. He knew that he would not open his mind to consider the question again. His full piercing eyes were stern and determined. Purposefully he had set his feet into the path he meant to follow without swerving. In a moment of hesitation and uncertainty the supreme argument had come to him; if for no other reason, he must ruin Shandon to save his own daughter from her folly.

"Garth," he said quietly, his deep voice retaining no trace of the emotion which had wracked him only an hour ago, "I am very glad that you have come. I have been expecting you all day."

"I met Wayne," Garth said hastily, watching Leland anxiously. "He was riding like the very devil. I never saw his face look as it did as he shot by me. He had been over here?"

"Yes. I had a plain talk with him. I made it clear to him that he was not again to set foot on my land."

"You didn't tell him-"

"I told him nothing! The man deserves no consideration at my hands. It is not my affair to tell him." He paused a moment, bending his gaze thoughtfully upon Conway's troubled face. "You have had time to think. What are you going to do?"

Garth opened his lips to speak, hesitated and closed them without a word. The air of uneasiness which he had brought with him into the room grew more marked. He shifted a little in his chair. Leland, watching him steadily, waited for him to speak.

"I don't know what to do," Conway blurted out finally. "You were so sure all the time he'd never come back.-Now if I don't tell him all about the mortgage and foreclosure there's chance on top of chance he'll find it out himself before the nine months drag by. And then-" He flashed a startled glance up at Leland's calm face. "He'd kill me! What can I do?"

"You can keep your mouth shut," answered Martin tersely. "You still have his power of attorney, haven't you?"

Garth nodded, his head down again, his fingers nervously busy with his lip.

"Conway," Leland continued with quiet emphasis, his keen glance watching for the effect of his words, "in sheer justice you have ten times more right to be owner of the Bar L-M than that mad fool has. You have slaved for over a year to make it what it is while he has been squandering money you had to scrape to send him. Even while Arthur was alive you were the actual manager. And now all that you have to do is keep still and you can have the place for a very small fragment of what it is worth. God knows I wouldn't put foot on it. There is nothing that the law can touch you for; we have seen to that. Nor will you be doing a dishonourable thing. It is sheer justice, Garth, that you and I will be meting out to him."

Conway's cheeks flushed a little, his eyes brightened at the thought of being some day the owner of the Bar L-M.

"But there's the chance-" he began.

"You are playing for big stakes," Leland reminded him crisply. "Of course there is a chance. But you exaggerate it. Play the game through and you will be a rich man before the year is out."

Before Conway could speak there came the clamorous barking of dogs in the yard and the noise of a horse's shod hoofs. In a moment there was a heavy booted stride up the steps and along the porch, followed by a loud rap at the study door. At Leland's nod Garth sprang to his feet and went quickly to the door, flinging it open.

For a second Sledge Hume's great frame filled the doorway as he paused, looking in sharply, drawing at his gauntlets. Then, brushing by Conway, he entered and stood with his back to the fireplace, still drawing off his gauntlets, his hat still low over his brows.

"Well?" he asked bluntly.

Just the short word, uttered as a command. There would be no wasting of words before they came straight to business. There was about the man, emanating apparently from his physical body something oddly like a materialised aura, bespeaking an aggressive character, a strong, dominant personality. Conway, alone with Leland, was a school boy in the presence of his master. Hume, ignoring Garth, challenged that superiority which Conway's weaker nature acknowledged unconsciously. The look of his eye, the very carriage of his handsome head, invited opposition, questioned an authority other than his own. A big, strong man physically his manner gave the impression that he was a big, strong man intellectually.

Old Martin did not at once speak but sat very still save for the restless fingers upon the table top. It was Conway who, after a brief hesitation, answered.

"We're going to stand pat-"

"I wasn't talking to you, Conway," said Hume coolly. "As far as I am concerned you aren't even a fifth wheel in this thing and you ought to know it. I want to know what Leland has got to say."

Garth coloured angrily but made no reply as he turned questioning eyes to the older man.

"Very well, Mr. Hume," said Leland quietly. "Do you care to sit down while we thresh things out?"

"No, I'll stand. Go ahead."

"To begin with, Wayne Shandon is back."

"I know he is back," spat out Hume. "That's why I'm here. What are you going to do now?"

"We are going ahead just as though he weren't here."

"You think that you can put the thing across?"

"Why not?"

"Just because," Hume shot back at him, "it doesn't seem likely that with the whole country knowing about the foreclosure of the mortgage somebody isn't going to do some talking."

Leland shook his head.

"Let me sum up the case for you," he said. "Arthur Shandon, the day before his death, mortgaged the Bar L-M to me for twenty-five thousand. When time for foreclosure came three months ago Wayne Shandon would have been notified if he had been here. As it was the notice went to his legal representative, Garth Conway. Conway allowed the Bar L-M to go under the hammer and at the sheriff's sale Conway himself bought it in-"

"For you," interjected Hume.

"Yes, for me. But who knows that? People who paid any attention to the transaction came to understand that it had been because of Wayne Shandon's known shiftlessness that the property was allowed to be sold, they knew that Conway was his agent, and that Conway bought it in. There is not a man living who knows anything about the matter who does not believe that Conway bought at Shandon's orders and with Shandon's money; and that the Bar L-M is Shandon's now and was never in any real danger from me. Is it likely then, that any man who believes this is, after this length of time, even going to think to mention the matter to Shandon?"

"You've got the chance to get by with it," said Hume slowly. "And it's a damned good chance."

"We all know the sort Shandon is," continued Leland. "I shall be surprised if he doesn't tire of the life here in six weeks, put through a sale of cattle, take the money and go again. With him away our chance becomes a certainty. In any case, I am going ahead with our work. I have had Garth look into the title of the Dry Lands and he finds that it is perfect."

"Yes. The land is mine and is clear."

"All we need now is the water and we are going to have that in another nine months when I shall have a clear deed to the Bar L-M. Garth and myself have gone ahead as I told you that we would, taking options on every acre we could get in Dry Valley. Before many days we shall virtually control the whole of the valley, just the three of us. Between us Garth and I have expended upwards of fifty thousand dollars in the last five weeks in options and out-right purchases."

"Let me see the papers," said Hume shortly.

Leland went to the safe and taking out a number of papers, handed them to Hume.

"All right as far as it goes," Hume said when at length he had finished his careful examination of the documents and had tossed them to the table. "You haven't got the Norfolk place nor the Ettinger place. What's the matter? They are more important to us than all the rest put together. Did they smell a rat?"

"I don't know. I am confident of closing with Norfolk in a few days, although I may have to pay him five dollars an acre more than I offered any one else. Ettinger is holding out for seventy-five thousand dollars, cash."

"Then he does smell a rat!" Hume's fist came crashing down upon the mantelpiece. "By God, somebody's been talking too much!"

"Mr. Hume," Leland reminded him sternly, "may I call to your attention the fact that nobody knows a thing about this matter excepting yourself, Garth and me? I haven't so much as told my wife-"

"You?" cried Hume hotly. "Who said that you had? You've got brains enough to hold your tongue. That's why I came to you in the first place. But Conway here-"

He swung suddenly upon Garth, his eyes flaming, his face distorted with wrath. Before either of the two men had guessed his purpose he strode swiftly across the room, and gripping Conway's shoulders with his two big hands jerked him to his feet.

"Conway," he snarled, his face close to the others, his eyes burning, his breath hot in Garth's blanched face, "you queer this deal with your infernal gab and I'll-"

He broke off sharply, flinging Conway backward from him so that the smaller man's body crashed against the wall.

"Hume!" cried Leland angrily. "I'll have no quarrelling in my house. If you can't act-"

"I haven't come here to-day for a love feast," sneered Hume, already forgetting Conway as he whirled upon Martin. "What I've got to say I'll say my way whether you and your cursed white rat like it or not. I say that somebody has been talking too damned much! That place of Ettinger's as it is, without the water, isn't worth twenty-five thousand. He'd have sold it for that a month ago and glad of the chance to unload. Now he holds out for seventy-five thousand! What's the answer? You've dragged Conway into this thing; I haven't. I wanted no man in it but you and Arthur Shandon and myself. You because you had the money, Arthur Shandon because he had the lake and the river. I didn't want Conway. He's your pet, not mine. Now, muzzle him if you can."

Garth's angry retort, the first word he had said since Hume sprang unexpectedly upon him, was lost in the low rumble of Martin Leland's heavy voice.

"You've said what you wanted to say, Mr. Hume. We've heard it. We understand each other. I can vouch for Conway's discretion. If you are as careful yourself we are all right. I'll attend to both Ettinger and Norfolk. I shall also see that at the end of the nine months the Bar L-M is mine and that we have the water for Dry Valley."

Hume laughed. Without again looking toward Conway he stooped, picked up the gauntlets he had let fall, and turned to the door.

"You are nobody's fool, Leland," he said patronisingly. "You are taking a chance in freezing Red Shandon out but the law can't go after you. And you stand to win a wad of money."

"Mr. Hume," interposed Leland sternly. "I am not taking over the Bar L-M because there happens to be money in it. I am simply using the weapon of retribution which God has seen fit to put into my hands-"

"Oh, rot!" grunted Hume sneeringly. "Don't come trying to square your conscience with me. I say, go to it, if you can get across with it."

He jerked the door open and then stopped suddenly his hand still on the knob.

"If you do slip up," he said bluntly, "if Red Shandon does hear about it and gets busy, let me know. If he starts making trouble I can put him where he'll be out of the way!"

The door closed loudly behind him.

* * *

Willie Dart's sunny nature seemed to grow ever brighter as the days wore on. Once or twice he sighed at Wayne Shandon's failure to respond to his levities; and when he felt particularly unappreciated he carried his dimpling personality to the bunk house where he was hailed with delight. When a flask that had come in with Long Steve, who had made a brief trip to the outer world, disappeared before that joyous gentleman had consumed half of the potent contents, and when later the empty flask was found in the covers of Emmet's bunk, Willie Dart looked on with sorrowful, innocent eyes while Steve and Emmet resorted to physical argument. When a game of crib was being played while half a dozen men looked on, and a portion of the deck vanished, only to turn up ten minutes later in the hip pocket of Tony Harris, who had not once been near the table and was most thoroughly mystified, no one thought of blaming the cheerful Mr. Dart. It was only when he offered privately to collect for Big Bill a debt of six bits long owing to him from Dave Platt that the real gift of those wonderful hands of his began to be at all apparent.

Then, too, the method of his progress over the range was another source of unfailing delight and unbounded admiration. He had ridden a horse to the Bar L-M, but no man of them ever saw his little legs astride a horse again. He found, back of the blacksmith shop, the wreck of an old cart which years ago had been used for breaking colts; he improvised shafts and seat; he discovered the encouraging fact that Old Bots, a shambling derelict who had lost an eye when Wayne Shandon was quite young, was gentle and trustworthy. After that, wherever he went abroad, and he travelled all over the countryside, he rode in the cart, steering Old Bots this way and that with much shouting, prodding and jerking of reins. And he drove where perhaps no man had ever driven before. His smiling confidence in Old Bots, in his rattling, creaking old cart, in his own ability as a driver were all characteristic of his joyous optimism.

In the meantime Wayne Shandon had at last seen Wanda. His reasons for making no effort to see her immediately after his heated interview with Martin Leland were clear in his own mind; he expected to find that they had been equally as clear to her, and that she would have understood. But the Wanda he found one riotously brilliant morning was rather cool, distant, unapproachable.

He had ridden up on the cliffs which towered at the upper end of the Echo Creek ranch, from which he could look down the valley and see her when she left the house, as he felt confident that she would. He saw her when it was not yet nine o'clock. She was riding out across the valley toward the cliffs opposite at the north end of the valley, toward the cave she had found there. Shandon marked the course she was taking, swung his horse across a ridge and hastened to the meeting with her. He came upon her as she dismounted near the big cedar against the rocks.

"Wanda!" he called softly.

She turned toward him, her face paler, he thought, than it should be. He slipped from the saddle and came swiftly toward her, his eyes shining, his arms out. Then she raised her hand, stopping him.

"Good morning, Wayne," she said quietly.

"Wanda," he cried, a little perplexed. "What is it? Aren't you glad to see me?"

She smiled, put down the parcel she had been carrying, and perched upon a big broken boulder forcing her eyes to look merrily into his. And what she read in his look sent a quick, glad flutter into her heart. But she did not let him know it.

"Glad to see you?" she replied gaily. "Why, of course I am. But," teasingly, a little cruelly, "aren't you the least bit afraid?"

"Afraid of what?" he asked blankly.

"Of papa!" she retorted, her dimples playing because she meant to look as though she was quite a heart whole maiden, and because the very ring of his earnest voice swept away all the uncertainty that had come to her during these last days of waiting. "You are on his land, you know."

"Surely you don't imagine-" he began.

She laughed lightly.

"My dear Wayne, how should I know?"

"I don't understand you, Wanda," he said a little stiffly. "After what happened the other day-"

In spite of her a little glowing colour ran up into her cheeks.

"Goodness," she exclaimed, persisting in the part she had vowed many times a day she would play for him, "haven't you forgotten that? Really, after you'd had time to think about it didn't you have to laugh? Weren't we a couple of precious kidlets?"

For a moment he stared at her as though dazed. This was a Wanda he had never seen before; he did not know what to make of her. And then suddenly he put his head back, the gladness that had sung in his heart when first he rode to meet her surged back and he laughed the great, deep, happy laugh the girl knew so well.

"You little witch!" he cried gaily, as gaily as Wanda had spoken at first and more genuinely so. "You've just set out to plague me. And I'll show you how I treat little girls who tease!"

Without more ado he came close to the rock upon which she sat looking down at him with demure eyes, swept her off into his arms and kissed her before he put her down.

"Now, Wanda Witch," he said softly, his eyes laughing into hers. "Are you sorry? And do you love me so hard it almost hurts?"

"So," she said when at last he released her, not certain in her heart that she had held out quite long enough, "that is the way you treat little girls who tease, is it? All little girls who tease? The 'Roosian' princess, for instance?"

"Thewhat ?" he demanded, having for the moment forgotten Dart's wild tale.

"Helga," she told him quite as seriously as she could, rearranging her disturbed hair and meanwhile looking up at him with eyes that were beginning to defy her and smile.

As he remembered, as he thought of the things Dart had told her to "boost his game" he became for one of the rare times in his life just a trifle embarrassed. She must think him a fool for letting that little cur yap all kind of nonsense into her ears, or the ears of any one who would listen. He flushed under her teasing eyes.

"I'm going to wring Willie Dart's little neck the first thing when I get home," he said. "Look here, Wanda-"

"Oho!" Her brows lifted and she looked at him speculatively. "So there really is a Helga, is there?"

But he was laughing again, again threatening to kiss her adorable red mouth if she did not behave and tell him all about herself.

"If you had really wanted to know couldn't you have ridden over sooner?" she asked.

BOOK: The Short Cut
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