Authors: Jackson Gregory
Then he told her why he had stayed away, how he had wanted to see her every day, how he had thought that she would understand.
"Your father forbade me the ranch," he reminded her. "At first I thought that it would be impossible for me to bring myself to set foot upon property belonging to him. I thought of sending word to you by Garth, by Dart even, asking you to meet me somewhere, anywhere that I would not be trespassing. And, dear, even before I would ask you to meet me, if you still cared!" with mock seriousness, "I wanted time to fight things out with myself, a few days in which to see if there was not some way out better than this one. I hoped, even, that your father would change his mind, that he would be fair with me as it is his way to be. And then at last, when I could not wait any longer, I came. And now, my Wanda Witch, I am going to stay until you come and put both arms around my neck and admit that you love me so hard that you've been perfectly miserable since you saw me!"
"And Helga?" she insisted lightly but with just a hint of curiosity.
"If you go on that way much more," he assured her, "I'll say, 'Damn Helga!' Tell me about yourself."
There was much to tell and it came at last as they sat together under the cedar, oblivious of the world about them, careless of what might lie in the future for them. There was the story of her rides, the murder of a bear cub, the meeting with Willie Dart, and-
"And, first of all," she cried triumphantly, "the discovery of a wonderful secret."
She refused to tell him what it was until he obeyed her bidding. She sent him scouting to see that no human eye could spy upon them, and then she sent him climbing the cedar.
"What's this?" he rebelled. "At least tell me whether I'm supposed to gather an armful of clouds or wait until dark and bring down some stars."
"Go straight up until I tell you to stop," she laughed. "And be sure you don't fall."
"Would you care very much, Wanda?" he asked loverlike and foolishly.
"I should," she informed him, her eyes twinkling. "For I shall be climbing right under you."
"Oh, I know, then. We're going to heaven."
And up he went. Laughing, calling back and forward like two children, their hearts gay and surcharged with something sweeter than mere gaiety, they made their way steadily, he always above, she just below him and carrying the parcel done up in a newspaper.
"You might at least let me carry our baggage upon our journey," he offered more than once. But she insisted that this too was a part of the secret.
At last he came to the limb that lay out across the ledge of rock and would have kept on climbing, he was so busy looking down at the rosy face that was looking up at him. But she commanded him to use his eyes for something else than just to make love with, and he understood.
"You mean to say you've been up here before? That you've gone out across that sort of a bridge?" he exclaimed in amazement. "Aren't you afraid of anything in the world, Wanda?"
"Yes," she answered. "Yes, to both questions. I'm inclined to be afraid of spiders; I think that I'd be afraid of an alligator. And now the secret!"
"A cave," he cried. "Way up here! How in the world did you happen to find it?"
When he had crossed first and given his hand to her she came swiftly to his side, thanked him with a nod and set him to work.
"This is my own private estate," she told him. "No one enters my portals until he has been invited. You are not invited yet. In that seam in the rock you will find plenty of wood and dry cones. If you'll put them at the doorway I'll let you know when you can come in. And, Wayne-"
"No one knows of this place except we two. Keep behind the cedar, won't you, so that if any one should be about you won't be seen?"
Wayne gathered great armfuls of wood, piled cones conveniently, and in the meantime got no single glimpse of the interior of the cavern. For Wanda had slipped within, had drawn over the wide opening the screen of branches her own hands had made against the occasion, and was completely hidden by that and the curtain which reinforced it against a ray of light. He could hear her singing softly, happily as she went back and forth. At last her voice came to him, calling merrily.
"You may come in, Mr. Shandon. Don't bring the wood with you yet; just come to look and admire."
He thrust aside the screen, stepped through and his short exclamation amply repaid her for the many hours of preparation.
A dozen tall candles burned here and there, set into niches in the rough walls, gummed in their own grease to knobs of stone, their pointed flames standing still like fairy spear blades menacing the shadows which still clung to the lofty ceiling. Giving added light was a blazing fire of pine cones at the far side of the cave, near the mouth of the passage leading to the cleft where the water shot down. Strewn across the whole floor, masking its rough surface, were pine needles which, while they made a thick mat underfoot, filled the cave with their resinous tang. And there was another odour, agreeable, homelike. Shandon looked again at the fire; set on each side of a bed of coals were two flat stones, perched on the stones a battered, blackened old coffee pot.
"I called you a witch, didn't I, Wanda?"
"You might at least have called me a Fairy," she retorted, her eyes bright with the joy of a day-dream come true.
"Did you conjure this out of a broken eggshell with a wand? Is this how you got your name, Wanda?"
She took him on a tour of exploration, pointing out each little thing which she had already seen alone, which, when she had seen it had promised her a day like to-day when she could show it to him. They went down the sloping passageway and stood for a little while silently before the chasm with its din of falling waters. They speculated upon what might lie upon the farther side if a man could cross. They came back to the fire and Wayne was shown how the air drew through the cave so that the passageway at the back gave exit to the smoke. They had just a peep, for Wanda would allow him no more now, into a hidden recess not five steps from her fireplace where there were mysterious packages hinting that they might be bacon and butter and sugar and coffee. And then they came back to the screened entrance and stepped outside. Wanda held up her field glasses to him.
"Look out that way," she ordered him. "No, Goosy. Not at the trunk of the tree. Between those two branches yonder. What do you see?"
He adjusted the glasses while she watched his face. And he found the clearing about the Bar L-M headquarters, the buildings themselves set upon the knoll.
"It's wonderful," he cried. "Why, we could signal-"
"Wait a minute," she interrupted brightly. "This isn't your discovery, not a bit of it. It's all mine and I'm jealous of it. And I've thought it all out. Now, if you'll come inside we'll have a cup of coffee and a sandwich which you'll eat politely just as though you were hungry."
"And I'll tell youmy invention. First, though, while I serve luncheon you can be the hired man and bring in all your wood. I'm perfectly willing to be cook but I refuse to get my wood any longer."
When he had completed his task he came to her. She had poured two tin cups of coffee, sweetened and cooled with condensed milk, and upon a clean piece of bark served her sandwiches. And they sat on the floor upon heaped-up pine needles and she told him her plan.
There was an old spy glass at the Bar L-M, wasn't there? All right. Then his first duty when he got back home would be to spend a patient time locating with it her cedar and the cliffs back of it. To-morrow morning, early, she would be here-no, no. Not in the cave nor even upon the ledge outside; they must guard so carefully against their secret being lost; but upon the big boulder at the top of the cliff. She would have her field glasses. He could step out upon the front porch at the Bar L-M, and if any of the boys were about he could pretend to be looking idly at a herd of cows somewhere, or at a hawk or at anything but at her. They could see each other quite distinctly.
"If it wasn't so far we could talk on our fingers!"
"Do I have to remind you again that this is my discovery, my invention?"
She tried so charmingly to be severe, and failed so delightfully that he assured her he was going to put down his coffee cup and come over and kiss her. But when she threatened that if he misbehaved she would not stir out of the house again for a week he sighed and finished his coffee and listened obediently.
"Suppose," she went on, "that you stood very still on your porch, both hands holding your spyglass? That would mean one thing. Suppose you leaned lazily against the door post? That would mean another. If you came down the steps, if you took off your hat, if you put on your hat, if you sat down on the bench, if you turned your back to me, if you lifted both arms above your head as if you were yawning and stretching, if you stooped to pick up something, if you stooped once, walked five steps and stooped again-don't you see that even with your whole outfit looking on we can say 'Good morning,' and 'Good night,' and anything else we choose to say? Isn't it splendid?"
For an hour they worked on what Wayne termed the Wanda-code. She had a pencil and tiny memorandum book and they made duplicate copies of their code of signals as they worked them out. Thus:
1. Standing straight, both hands up-I love you, dear, with my whole heart. (That was Wayne's contribution to the code, and he insisted that it be number one in the book.)
2. Leaning against a tree or post-I must see you immediately.
3. Removing hat-Be careful. We are being watched.
4. Turning back-Something has happened to prevent our meeting to-day.
5. Stooping once-That's all. Good bye.
And so on until there were no less than two dozen signals each with its meaning, each to carry across the miles a lover's message.
They agreed upon the exact time when every day their love would laugh at the miles separating them; an early hour when they had waited just long enough to give Wanda time to ride hither and the Bar L-M men time to have gone about the day's work. And if Wayne were not upon his porch then Wanda was to understand that he was already riding to meet her.
"But your mother," he said. "Doesn't she often go with you?"
"Not when I want to be alone," Wanda smiled back at him. "Mamma knows, Wayne."
"You have told her? Your father told her?"
"It isn't something that papa talks about, dear. I told. And, Wayne-"
Suddenly they ceased to be children playing and became very serious. For while the love brimming their young hearts had been like a fountain from which laughter bubbled up, still its song had not deafened their ears to the murmur of life about them. There were things to be told each other, questions to ask and answer, their own future to look soberly in the face.
Day after day Shandon had looked for word from Martin Leland, had counted on receiving from him an offer for the water to be employed in bringing fertility to Dry Valley. He told her of Ruf Ettinger and his counter scheme, how close he had come to being drawn into it; he wondered if something had happened to cause Leland and Hume to give up their proposition.
No, whatever this proposition was they had not given it up, Wanda was sure of that. Her father was away much of the time; she knew that he had been often in Dry Valley, that he had had some sort of dealings with Ruf Ettinger. She had heard him say to her mother last night that the man was a hog, that when offered an unheard of price for his land he had held out for something still better, and that Leland had broken off negotiations with him entirely. Yes, it must be the same proposition about which Ettinger had gone to Shandon. Strange that Garth had not told him anything. She knew that Garth regularly met her father and Sledge Hume; she knew that whatever the business was that had drawn Leland and Hume together had drawn Conway into it also.
That matter finally disposed of, left with the unsatisfactory conclusion that Garth had his own reasons for remaining silent, and that Shandon would soon hear from Leland, Wanda broached the other subject which had all along been the one cloud upon her happiness. Driven to the rim of her mind by her gayer moods it was still there, sinister and black upon the horizon.
"I should have told you the other day," she said slowly, "the day when we found so much else to talk of. You will understand why papa has refused to let you come to the house."
"What is it, Wanda?" he asked eagerly, hoping there would be a direct charge so that he might vindicate himself.
"Have you no idea, Wayne?" a little curiously. "Have you never had a suspicion of the reason that makes papa hate you so?"
"He disliked my father-"
"It is not that. Maybe that makes him the more ready to suspect you-" And then she blurted it out, a little defiantly, laying her hand softly upon his arm. "He thinks, he has thought all along, that you killed Arthur!"
He stared at her gravely, the shock of such a charge too great to be appreciated to its fullest extent in a moment.
"He thinks that I killed Arthur?" he repeated incredulously. And then, bitterly, "My God, Wanda. This is too horrible."
"Listen, Wayne. We must talk this over calmly and see what is to be done. You see papa has disliked you because he hated your father. Oh, it's unjust but it's so human! He has believed all the hard things men have said of you and they have said many. He knows that the day before Arthur was killed you and he quarrelled. Then you went away, you were gone a year and he didn't think that you would ever come back. You came back, you made me love you. Believing as he did, papa did the natural thing when he refused to let you come again."
"He had no right to believe it," he cried angrily. "I shall tell him so. I shall make him tell me of a single thread of the wildest circumstantial evidence to point to this hideous thing!"
"It will do no good," she said simply. "Nothing in the world can be done unless-oh, I have thought so much about this, Wayne-unless the real murderer can be found. Surely if you offered rewards, if you hired detectives, if you talked with MacKelvey-"
"Wanda," he interrupted, his voice at once stern and troubled. "Do you remember when you gave me the revolver that morning? I didn't explain to you, even you. I couldn't. If I went away and stayed so long, if I didn't remain here doing the thing you suggest, offering rewards, hiring detectives to hunt his murderer down, couldn't you guess why? You found the revolver that killed him."
"And the day Arthur and I rode into El Toyon I gave the thing to him. It was his own then. He shot himself. God knows why. I should have spoken then, I should have told MacKelvey, your father, every one. But I hated to, I hated the thought of it, of having people know that Arthur had committed suicide, of having men talk of it. I thought that there would be investigations, of course, but that they would die down. I knew that no man would be accused; it was my secret. I would keep it for Arthur's sake."
He broke off sharply, moved strongly by his own words that conjured up something he had striven manfully to shut out of his mind, strongly moving the girl who heard him. She watched him with piteous, sad eyes while he strode up and down, back and forth in the candle lighted cave. Suddenly he stopped, exclaiming bitterly,
"Your father thinks this of me. Who else? Does half the countryside believe me a murderer? Does Garth believe it? Does Hume? Does your mother?"
"I don't know what Garth and Sledge Hume think," she answered. "I do know about mamma. Wayne, even she was afraid at first, even mamma. But she knows you too well, dear. She says that you are the other Wayne Shandon, over and over; that you may have been a spendthrift and a brawler,-forgive me,-dear, but that you have always been an honest and manly man. She knows that we love each other, Wayne. She knows that I have expected to see you. Isn't that enough?"
"Next to you, Wanda, she is the sweetest woman in the world." He took the girl's hands in his and stood looking down at her gravely. "And you, you have never been afraid? You recognised the revolver, you brought it to me. Are you very sure-"
"Kiss me, Wayne," she said for answer.
And yet, when they parted lingeringly, the little cloud was still upon the horizon, the uneasy feeling of uncertainty upon them. If, at this late hour, he went to the sheriff and told the truth, what would be the result? Would it sound like the truth to MacKelvey? To Martin Leland?
* * *
The summer sped by like one long golden day under its rare blue sky; yet always upon the horizon was that single black cloud. Not until summer had gone its bright way and winter had come, locked the mountain passes and departed again, was the way to be made clear.
If Wayne Shandon could have had the opportunity to act at once when Wanda told him the reason of her father's open enmity he would have gone immediately in his headlong way to MacKelvey. He would have told the sheriff his own version of the tragedy; he would have recounted the finding of the revolver by Wanda, her giving it to him, his certainty that Arthur had taken his own life. But having promised Wanda to do nothing rashly, without again talking with her, having pondered deeply as he rode back to the Bar L-M and during the days which followed, he came to see sanely that for his own sake and for the sake of the girl he loved it would be better if he held his peace until time and thought brought clear vision.
He was already suspected by Martin Leland, perhaps by MacKelvey himself, perhaps by many men among whom he came and went. Would the story he had to tell lessen suspicion in any single breast? Would it not rather give the sheriff just such a bit of evidence as he had long been seeking?
Much alike in one great essential Wayne Shandon and Wanda Leland had hearts that were tuned to happiness. To such people it is easier to be gay than sad; the trouble, stern as it was, that had entered their lives so early was less than the brightness which dissipated all other troubles but that one. Good fortune had disclosed to them a meeting place as high as the waving treetops where no one's curious eye would penetrate; they could converse across the miles almost as people may call across a street; they could be together two or three times a week without their world knowing. These things gave wings to the summer.
They were busy days, clad in action, crowned with dreamings. Wanda's cave became a dainty bower for a fair lady. Across the cliffs, by tortuous trail, it was a scant five miles to the little mountain town of White Rock. Many a dim morning before the shadows lifted to the rising sun the trail had echoed to the clanging hoofs of Shandon's horse as he rode down and back, bringing a surprise for Wanda. A packhorse had brought in supplies, bought in Shandon's own reckless way, which when piled high against the rock walls made Wanda gasp and ask him if he thought that she was going to take in boarders. There were camp stools, there were rugs. A tiny sheetiron camp stove came one day, and when Wanda put her rosy face through the screen that Wayne had substituted for her old one, her nostrils were assailed by the odours of boiling coffee, frying bacon, sizzling apples and burning bread.
There were strings of onions, and potatoes popping out of their bag before the summer died; a side of bacon swung against a ham where Wayne had driven a dead branch into a crevice in the rocks; there was a table he had constructed rudely but securely; there were books on it; there were candles burning everywhere.
"Because," he had laughed at her surprise, "winter will come one of these days, and do you think that I'm not going to see you until it's gone again? Oh, I suppose I'll have to be down at the lower pastures with the stock, but I'll get up here now and again. Then when a fine day comes and you want a long ski ride, you'll know where to come, won't you, Wanda? Where a hot luncheon will be waiting for you? And, who knows," he whispered, "maybe we'll spend our honeymoon here sometime!"
Shandon at first had thought of going to Garth Conway, of asking him frankly what the deal was in which he and Sledge Hume and Mr. Leland were interested, and if they were counting upon needing the Bar L-M water as Ruf Ettinger had told him they were. But in this matter also had he altered his first quick decision. He had always liked Conway, at least, without thinking a great deal about it he supposed he had, for the very simple reason that they were cousins and had, in a way, grown up together. But on the other hand they were men essentially unlike, in no respect congenial. They had never been confidential; were they the only two men in the world it is doubtful if one would have carried his personal thoughts and emotions to the other. That little reserve which had always existed, scarcely noted by Wayne Shandon, was suddenly a wall between them. This was Conway's business; if he chose to keep it his secret from his cousin, Wayne Shandon was not the man to ask him to talk about it.