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Authors: Jackson Gregory

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BOOK: The Short Cut
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It was an old safe, an old, old make and style, and Mr. Dart sighed and shook his head a little disappointedly as he knelt, brought out of his pockets a set of bright, new tools and set to work.

"Any time," he mused when the door swung open, "that they put a pal of mine out of the running they better get up-to-date."

* * *

Riding furiously with the fury of the storm as though swept onward with it, looking the very spirit of the wintry season that is made of black nights and cold, bright days, a woman was hastening upon a jaded horse toward the Echo Creek ranch house from the direction of El Toyon and the railroad. She rode well, sitting straight in the heavy saddle, and she rode hard. When the horse stumbled or floundered in the loose snow she jerked angrily at the reins and cut sharply with her riding whip.

She entered the yard and rode up to the porch while Wanda was still deep in Wayne's letter, while Dart was forming his lips to a soft, silent whistle over a document which had passed from a drawer of the safe into his caressing white fingers. The woman dismounted quickly but a little stiffly as though from cold or fatigue, and fastening her horse's reins with numb, gloved fingers hastened up the steps to the living room door. She rapped loudly and Wanda, thinking that this was but a further evidence of the fact that one of Mr. Dart's names was Delicacy, called out, "Come in."

It was with a little start of surprise that Wanda saw her. A young woman, twenty-five perhaps, of that rare sort of personality that asserts itself in a flash. Exquisitely cloaked and furred, clad from tiny boots to cap in black, her hair black, her eyes large and luminous and black. Furs and cloak failed to hide the erect gracefulness of the slender form, the poise of which as well as the carriage of the head indicated an imperious disposition. The woman was undeniably beautiful, her loveliness the delicately featured, perfectly chiselled beauty that is called classic. The fur cap upon the small head was snow encrusted and sat upon her cold beauty like a coronet; under it the escaping tendrils of jet black hair were fashioned by the cold into a glistening mesh of silver threads.

"This is the Leland place, isn't it?" was her abrupt greeting.

"Yes," Wanda replied, not yet quite recovered from the surprise of the sudden vision.

"You are Wanda Leland, I suppose?" the cool, deep-throated voice went on as the black eyes flashed critically from the girl's face to her house dress, her pumps, the letter in her hands, her face again.

"Yes," Wanda repeated quietly. She disliked the little air this woman had about her, the subtle hint of patronage and superiority, but her natural wish to be hospitable to a stranger driven hither by the storm made her seek to ignore this first impression.

"I'm Claire Hazleton. I've just ridden in from El Toyon. My horse is done up, I'm afraid, or I shouldn't have troubled you."

Wanda's quick, ready smile flashed out at this and she came forward, putting out her hand.

"I'm glad that you did come," she said cordially. "You must be tired to death and simply frozen. If you'll come up to the fire and take off your things I'll make some tea or coffee."

Claire Hazleton's slim gloved hand accepted Wanda's, touching it lightly.

"You are too kind," she began formally. "If it wouldn't be too much bother-"

"Nonsense," laughed Wanda. "If you'll make yourself cozy at the fire I'll be back in a moment."

Hurrying out, Wanda had a glimpse of Willie Dart standing on the porch, his hands in his pockets, his big innocent eyes beaming approvingly at the snow and the sky and the world in general. As she went on her way to the kitchen, Mr. Dart, having in turn looked approvingly at her, shifted his gaze to the panting saddle horse standing with drooping head at the steps, and then, putting his hands under his coat tails, he returned to the living room. Claire Hazleton had just removed her outer wraps and was warming her hands at the fire. Mr. Dart, noticing the cluster of rings on her fingers, flapped his coat tails up and down and closed the door behind him with his elbow.

"Say," he began pleasantly, "it's fierce outside, ain't it? Talk about a slush party. Ain't this a ring tailed dandy?"

She turned upon him slowly and bestowed upon him a long stare, frankly curious. Then she laughed.

"It certainly is a ring tailed dandy," she admitted musically. "You aren't Mr. Leland, are you?"

Dart laughed too, his amusement apparently as genuine as hers, and entirely unabashed by the unconcealed appraisal of her glance at him.

"You're joshing," he retorted, coming closer so that while he could look at her he could turn his coat tails to the fire. "There's as much difference between me and my old pal Mart as there is between you and a picture of a little country girl picking buttercups."

"You don't think I look the part?" she smiled.

"You?" He favoured her with the full measure of his supreme impudence as he looked her over. "You're just built to play the queen's part in a tragedy show on Broadway. After the first night there'd be just one theatre doing business."

She frowned quickly, her eyes darkening as they had when she struck with her whip at her tired horse. Then she shrugged her shoulders and laughed again.

"You're very flattering," she said in a way which made Dart look at her sharply and which for a very brief time left him a little uncertain.

"Me?" he said. "You wrong me, lady. Honest you do. I'm sired by a gentleman who was a Baptist minister and who instilled in his only son if you lie once you'll do it some more and then you'll get caught. Say, seeing Wanda ain't here to do the knockdown stunt, I'm Dart, Mr. Willie Dart, to command."

He bobbed her a bow, accompanied the ceremony with a little flap of the coat tails, and all the while did not shift his round, inquisitive eyes from her face.

"Being acquainted now," he went on when a little pause assured him that she was not going to respond with an exchange of names, "just make yourself to home, won't you? I'll duck in and tell Wanda you're here. And," merely as an afterthought, "what name will I say, lady?"

"Don't bother," she replied coolly. "She knows I'm here."

"Does she? She hasn't been expecting you, has she?"

"No." Miss Hazleton's interest in the little man had evidently died a sudden death, and her one concern now seemed to get herself warm and dry.

"She's one great little kid, Wanda is, ain't she?" he ran on, totally unaffected by the significance of the young woman's back whose graceful curves were not lost to his admiring eyes.

"If you say so she must be," came the calm answer. "I never saw her before to-day."

"And you don't know old Mart?" She did not know Wanda, he surmised, she had wondered if he were Leland, then it must be Mrs. Leland she had come to see. "Say," he continued, "maybe Wanda couldn't find Mamma Leland! I'll just slip in and break the news. Gee, won't she be tickled to see you, you coming unexpected like this?"

"Really, Mr. Dart," she told him crisply, "you needn't take the trouble. Mrs. Leland wouldn't be the least bit glad to see me as she doesn't know me. And if you haven't discovered the fact already I might as well tell you that I am eminently capable of managing my own affairs."

Mr. Dart's silent whistle came very near being audible. But he answered in a voice which was meant to assure her that his sensitive nature had not been hurt and that his admiration had merely been stimulated.

"That's me," he said brightly. "Give me the dame every time that makes her own play and don't yell, 'Help' if she sticks a pin in her finger. Them doll-babies some guys go dippy over don't qualify for the finals with me."

But Mr. Dart was puzzled. She had ridden here through this storm, she had come all the way from El Toyon, for he had not been inattentive while he had been just outside the door before Wanda left the room, and she did not know a single person on the ranch. The very reason for her presence here was a challenge to Dart's peculiar temperament.

"Tell you what I'll do," he resumed, "I'll take that skate of yours down to the barn and throw some hay into him. He looks like it would do him good in case the shock don't undermine his system."

He made his hesitant way toward the door, his pride a little wounded at being defeated in the initial skirmish, his confident optimism looking forward eagerly to a more skilful attack. And then a word from Miss Hazleton brought him back to the charge.

"Don't trouble to take the saddle off," she said without turning. "I shall be riding on as soon as I have my tea."

Riding on? Where? The very course she had come pointed at one place.

"It's quite a ways to Red's," he said quickly. "You better take it easy and rest up a bit."

"Red's?" she condescended to ask.

"Sure. Shandon's, you know. You're headed for the Bar L-M, ain't you? Say, I'm going back that way myself pretty soon. Suppose you come along with me? I got a cart. It ain't much to look at but anyhow it beats pounding saddle leather. We can lead your skate, if you want to."

And rather to Dart's surprise she answered promptly,

"Thank you. That will be better. But in any case don't unsaddle. And when you come in will you bring the little bag strapped behind the saddle?"

Wanda returned then, bringing the tea and a hastily prepared lunch. Dart winked at her as he went out. He led the shivering horse at a trot to the barn.

"Now," he grunted in a mournful tone that spoke of disappointment and hinted at disgust, "wouldn't you think, to look at her, that dame had more stuff in her head than to do a trick like that?"

For the little black bag was locked and the key was gone, and the lock was a thing to make Mr. Dart sigh and shake his head as he had done over Martin's safe.

"I'll get so used to turning baby tricks," he mused, "I won't be able to do a real man's work. Well, it can't be helped when a man's putting in time in a place like this. Now, Lady Clamshell, we'll take a peep and see if your baggage-"

The bag was open, its contents rifled by slim, white fingers that seemed, each one, endowed with a brain of its own. In an incredibly short time various negligible feminine articles had been examined and replaced very carefully and exactly, a handkerchief without so much as a laundry mark, a silver vanity set with no monogram, and then came the reward to Mr. Dart's curiosity. It was a card case half filled with calling cards.

Mr. Dart did a thing he had rarely done in his life. He swore. He said:

"Well, I'll be damned!"

And being alone, speaking confidentially to himself, he may have meant it. He looked as though he did.

"You are very kind, Miss Leland," the new-comer was saying quietly. "I should like to accept your hospitality further. It has been a pleasure to meet you, I am sure. But you will infer from my being abroad at all at a time like this that my errand is urgent. I must be going immediately."

Mr. Dart came in at this juncture, his expression void of all emotion except a deep, unhidden admiration which embraced the two women, both of whom he felt honoured in including in the list of his friends.

"Miss Hazleton," began Wanda, "I didn't introduce you to Mr. Dart."

"He did," replied the other briefly.

"Sure," supplemented Dart. He handed the black bag to its owner and asked casually, "You're strong for hitting the pike right away?"

"If you are ready."

"Right-o, Miss Hazleton," he answered, pronouncing the name as though he enjoyed the sound of it. "I came over on some hurry-up business," with a sly look at Wanda that brought a little flush to her cheeks, "and I didn't unhook. Old Bots is pawing the earth and snorting his eagerness to help out. Say the word and we're off."

Involuntarily Wanda showed her surprise at the arrangement. It was the first word she had had of their way lying together.

"The lady's going over to the Bar L-M," Dart remarked as he observed Wanda's look. "She's a friend of Red's."

"Oh," said Wanda.

She strove immediately to act and speak as though there were nothing unusual in the situation. Miss Hazleton put on her coat and furs again without volunteering further information, while Dart hurried away for his own cart and her horse. Wanda accompanied them to the porch, saw them seated and starting and then returned to the house with a little hurt feeling in her heart which she knew was foolish but which she could not drive out. If Claire Hazleton and Wayne Shandon were upon such intimate terms that she made this trip to see him, it was a little strange that Wayne had never so much as mentioned her name to her.

"Wait a minute," cried Dart, jerking his horse up short before they had gone fifty yards from the house. "I forgot my gloves."

He shoved the reins into his companion's hands, jumped down and running back burst in bright faced and eager upon Wanda, startling her with the sudden unexpectedness of his return. With his finger upon his lips, his air surcharged with mystery, he came close to her.

"Have you wised up?" he whispered. "Got next to who the mysterious fairy is?"

"She's Miss Claire Hazleton," said Wanda a little stiffly and a bit puzzled.

"Rats!" grunted Mr. Dart putting much eloquence Into the monosyllable. "That's a bum monniker out of a French love story. It's the Roosian princess. It's Helga, that's who it is!"

BOOK: The Short Cut
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