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Authors: Jackson Gregory

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Moreover, perhaps even more important now than that consideration, there was another. Leland and Hume had at least been upon the point of going into this matter just before Arthur's death, and they had taken Arthur into their confidence. Perhaps he was to have been one of their corporation when one was formed. Now that Wayne owned the Bar L-M and the water, the logical thing for them to do was to come to him. They had brought Garth into the circle of their endeavour; they had ignored Shandon. A little hurt at the obvious significance of this Shandon shrugged his shoulders and resolved that when the first word was spoken it would not be by himself.

And soon he came close to forgetting it. The incentive to bestir himself had at last come into his life and he was not loitering. Little by little, through long talks with Garth, with Big Bill and other men of his outfit, he came to have a grasp upon the work which should have been his a year before, and an interest in it. Only now for the first time did he take the trouble to learn the real meaning of resources and liabilities; to estimate profit and loss; to speculate upon success in the business which he found rather larger than he had suspected. He called a round-up to learn to the head how many steers and cows and calves carried the Bar L-M brand. He brought a quick look of surprise that was close to suspicion into Garth's eyes by asking casually just what sums had been taken in during the last year by sales of beef, how the money had been reinvested, if there was a surplus in the bank. He went into the matter of the wages of all of the men, and learned that Garth himself was drawing the same salary he had drawn under Arthur.

"Oh, I'm not thinking that you're holding out on me," he laughed at Garth's expression. "I've just begun thinking that it's about time I'm doing part of my own work. So everything you got out of the sales last year you slapped back into the business, buying more cattle?"

"I sent you four thousand, you remember," Garth reminded him.

"You don't quite get me, Garth. What's left of that four thousand wouldn't buy a sack of tobacco. We haven't banked any cash, have we?"

Even now Garth hesitated, Garth's way. Then he answered.

"Arthur left fifteen hundred in the bank. I haven't touched that, of course. If you haven't-"

"I didn't know it was there," laughed Wayne. "When I pulled out and gave you my power of attorney I let everything slide off my shoulders on to yours. Is that all?"

"I banked pretty heavily from sales," Garth went on. "Under my own name, as it saved trouble and I didn't know when you'd show up. I drew out again, for the men's wages, for a few improvements and running expenses, for the other cattle I bought. I've got the vouchers, if you want to see them."

"I don't want to see them."

"There is still something left," Garth said, his voice careless, his eyes glancing up at Shandon and down again. "It's still in my name. About four thousand."

"Good boy," cried Wayne. "That's going to save me some trouble. Will you give me a check for it, Garth?"

"It's yours," Garth replied, going to look for pass book and check book. But when he returned he could not refrain from asking, "What are you going to do with it, Wayne?"

"Double it!" laughed Shandon. "Bet it on a horse race, my boy! But look here," seriously. "I want only five thousand. Counting the other fifteen hundred there's something over that. You've been working like a dog for a year, drawing just foreman's wages while you've been taking the owner's responsibilities. I'm going to shove the other five hundred down your throat as the rest of the unpaid wages due you, or a bonus or whatever you like to call it."

And as Garth's momentary stupefaction was followed by what threatened to be very profuse thanks, Shandon fled to the stable and Little Saxon.

Already word of the race to be run in the springtime, in June when the snows would be gone, had travelled up and down the country. Sledge Hume's money was in the hands of Charlie Granger at El Toyon, and the order signed by him to turn over the five thousand dollars to the man who came in first, himself or Wayne Shandon, containing the clause which he had insisted upon, making it clear that if only one man entered the race he was to take the money.

Five thousand dollars wagered on a single race; Red Reckless and Sledge Hume riding; Endymion, who had already shown those who knew him that for beauty and speed and endurance he was the peer of his aristocratic, thoroughbred sire and dam; Little Saxon, whom men knew yet only as a wild hearted colt being tamed by a man who knew horses and who was willing to lay five thousand on him against his brother; the course a ten mile sweep of mountain and valley, of broken trail and grassy meadow, leading from the high lands to the east of Bar L-M and Echo Creek, ending at the Bar L-M corrals; this one event was enough to draw the attention of men up and down the cattle country, in the mining towns and lumber camps. Word of it went everywhere; letters came to Wayne Shandon from other men who had horses, who suggested this, that and the other race, who sought to find men to cover their bets.

It would be an all day meet; the Bar L-M outfit would entertain generously; there would be barbecued beef; every one was welcome; big wagons would be busy a week beforehand bringing in enough food for a small army. Any man had the opportunity of entering his own horse with these provisos: this was to be a Western race in all essentials; the horse must be Western, born and bred, the man who owned it must ride his own horse. There would be no professional jockeys; there would be no bookmakers.

News of the race, before the winter had come, more than six months before the day set in June, had gone over the crest of the Sierra and appeared in the papers at Reno. It had flashed across telegraph wires to Sacramento; had been talk for a day in many a place where sporting men foregather in San Francisco. Men who had never heard of them before came to know of Sledge Hume and Wayne Shandon, of Endymion and Little Saxon. And still Little Saxon was but a half broken colt.

"It's all right," grunted Willie Dart to himself, kicking his heels from the top of the corral and watching his Noble Benefactor risking his life in the company of a great, belligerent red-bay horse. "It's all right, seeing I'm here. Suppose I wasn't, suppose I was still dodging cops on Broadway, then what? Then Sledgehammer Hume would put some death-on-rats in Hell Fire's hay, or pick Red off with a shot gun, and who cops onto the five thou? A man don't have to have a fortune teller for a mother to get wised up to that."

Little by little the proud spirited horse learned his lesson. He came to see that his destiny lay in the hands of the man who came out to him daily. He gave over trying to beat the man to death with his flying heels; he no longer sought to tear at him with bared teeth; he recognised that it was as futile to seek to hurl the man from his back as to break the strong cinch which held the saddle; that he might run until he killed himself, but that he could not run away from the man who rode him and laughed. He learned that in this world that had been so utterly free for him there was one single being who was his master in all things, whom he must obey. And, when obedience came, pleasure in that obedience followed, and trust and faith and love.

That year winter came in as it had not come to these mountains for twenty-seven years, early, unheralded and hard. The cattle and horses had not yet been moved down to the lower ranges when one day, in mid-afternoon, the air thickened, bursting black clouds drove up from the southwest, the forests rocked moaning and shuddering under the smashing impact of the sudden storm, the sun was lost in a darkness that grew impenetrable toward the time of dusk, and the skies opened to a downpour of rain. For upwards of an hour the great drops drove unceasingly into the dry ground while giant daggers of lightning stabbed at the earth that seemed to bellow its torment in reverberating roars. Then the slanting rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, the wind went howling through the forests and was gone, and in the stillness which ushered in the true night the snow began.

All night it snowed, steadily, without cease. The morning dawned wanly on a white world; distant peaks and ridges were blotted out in the grey, snow filled air. Men who were careless yesterday became to-day filled with an activity which was swift and tireless. In candlelight and lamplight they dressed hurriedly and made speedy breakfasts. This storm might be nothing but a warning of winter; it might be the first day of a snowfall that would continue for two weeks. In any event it was high time to have the cattle on the run to the lower valleys.

"Two days of this," grunted Big Bill as he kicked his way viciously through the snow already over ankle deep on the way to the stable, "an' the passes'll be so choked up we can't whoop the cow brutes through 'em. An' me, I ain't hankerin' after totin' a bawlin' calf under each arm, nuther."

All day long, upon the Bar L-M and the Echo Creek, men were riding deep into the sheltered ravines, bringing out the stock, heading the stragglers westward down the valleys, gathering the different herds into one on each ranch to crowd them out of the belt of hard winter. Many men rode many miles that day, changing their horses at noon, making a hasty meal when they could, riding again.

Always before this year the herds of the Bar L-M had been pushed across the bridge or made to swim the river where it was wide and shallow, and driven across a corner of the Echo Creek ranch by the most direct route out. But this year Wayne Shandon briefly gave new orders, telling his men to keep on the Bar L-M property as long as they could, then to throw the herds across the ridge to the south and along a harder, longer trail to the county road ten miles further west. He offered no explanation, his men asked none. It was but another indication to them of the thing which was already no secret, that there was some sort of serious trouble between Wayne Shandon and Martin Leland.

Wayne and Garth intended to stay that night at the range house, being the last two men to leave, after attending to the countless little things which must be done about a ranch before it is abandoned to the winter and solitude. They planned to follow the rest of the Bar L-M outfit in the morning.

Even Martin Leland who usually moved his stock early had been caught unprepared. The fine weather preceding the storm had tricked him; he had not planned the drive until two weeks yet. He, too, having worked with his men all day, having ridden the first half dozen miles with them, came back to spend the night at his home.

That afternoon, while the men of both ranges were doing two days' work in one, Willie Dart called upon Wanda. Mr. Dart made it a part of his business in life to be on good terms with every one. He ignored the contemptuous grunts of Wanda's father, and in speaking of him referred to him as, "My old pal, Mart." Martin tolerated him, Mrs. Leland was amused by him, Wanda welcomed him as coming from Wayne's home, as always a possible bearer of tidings from Wayne himself. And such he was to-day.

For there had been no time for signalling, the snow had veiled the cliffs across the miles, and Wayne must send word of his sudden necessary change of plans. So he entrusted a note to Mr. Dart, having first sealed it in its envelope and informed the carrier that if he pried into it the police in New York would learn by telegraph of the present whereabouts of Mr. Dart.

Wanda and Dart were alone in the big living room while Mrs. Leland was busied with Julia in making preparations within the house for the siege of winter. As she left the room Mr. Dart winked slyly at Wanda, tapped his breast pocket, winked the other eye and assumed the air of a man bearing secret and very mysterious messages. In due time he brought out the letter, the flap of the envelope showing so little sign of having been tampered with that it was not to be expected that the eager girl would note it. Mr. Dart afterwards admitted that he prided himself upon the appearance of that envelope, all things, including inclement weather, considered-and presented it with a whispered,

"Red wouldn't trust anybody with it but me. Say, he's some kid, ain't he, Wanda?"

Beaming on her like a cherub in checked suit and brilliant necktie, he approached a little nearer and whispered again,

"Me, I'll just mosey out on the porch while you flash your eyes over Red's handwrite. Delicacy's my other name, times like this."

Still beaming he winked again, still winking let himself silently out of the front door.

Considering that all Wayne Shandon had to write a letter about was to tell Wanda that he was hurrying out with the herds to-morrow, that when during the next few weeks he could get back he would signal with smoke from the cliffs above her cave, it must have taken him a long time to say it. Considering how little she had to read Wanda must have been very deliberate in reading Wayne's scrawl. At any rate, long before she had finished, Mr. Willie Dart had gone silently down the porch, peered in the kitchen window at Mrs. Leland and Julia, continued on to the door of Martin's study and let himself in. The door had been locked, at that, when Dart's beautiful fingers first touched it, and they had done what Mr. Dart himself termed "plying his profession."

"I ain't had a chance like this since I was three," Mr. Dart told himself contentedly. "Honest, I ain't. Now, if these nice old country gents think they can put over something with my old pal Red, and me not know just how they're figuring on the skinning party, they better wise up."

He closed the door silently, and any sound he made might have been that of a pin dropped on a thick carpet. He surveyed the room with eyes that missed nothing.

"I knew it," he smiled, as though at the sight of an old friend as he found the safe in the far corner of the room. "I heard your door shut the other day, old party, when I was chumming with Wanda and you and the rest of the combination was talking war talk. Not to waste time we'll begin with you."

BOOK: The Short Cut
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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