Authors: Jackson Gregory
He slipped a little engraved calling card into her hand, winked into her amazed eyes, drew a pair of gloves out of his hip pocket, crumpled them in his hand and hastened back to the cart.
Wanda stared a moment at the card. Then she flung it from her and with blazing eyes watched the flames in the fireplace lick at it.
* * *
XVII. "WHERE'S THAT TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND? WHAT'S THE ANSWER?"
There was a peculiar sternness in Wayne Shandon's voice that made his cousin start in a way which, to Shandon's taut nerves, seemed instantly a sign of guilt. Conway finished the work he was doing, snapped the heavy padlock into the log chain, which fastened the double doors of the small building where odds and ends were stored during the winter, and came on through the snow, smiting his hands together to get the chilled blood running.
"Hello, Wayne," he answered. "What's up?"
"That's what I want to know," briefly. "What do you know about a mortgage on the Bar L-M?"
It was too dark for Shandon to see the other's face clearly. He noticed that Garth hesitated just a second before answering.
"What do you mean?" Conway's voice sought to be confident and failed. Shandon's fist snapped shut involuntarily. It was almost, he thought, as if Garth had answered him directly.
"I mean just this: Did you know that the Bar L-M was mortgaged to Martin Leland for twenty-five thousand dollars?"
Garth Conway would not have been himself but some very different man had there not been a considerable pause before he replied.
"Yes," he said at last, a little doggedly. "I knew it."
"Arthur mortgaged it the day he was killed? Or the day before?"
"And the mortgage was foreclosed three months ago?"
"And you never told me about it! Why?"
"I should have done so, I suppose," Garth said nervously. "But- Well, the first thing you hit out for the East. You weren't attending to business then, Wayne. You wrote me to take charge of everything, not to bother you with ranch affairs. You gave me a power of attorney-"
"I've been back half a year," said Shandon shortly. "I've been attending to business. Why haven't you told me?"
Conway drew back a quick step as though he feared from his cousin's harsh voice that physical violence would follow.
"I didn't think of it," he said weakly, and at the same time with a pitiful attempt at defiance.
The words came distinctly enunciated, cold and hard, a little pause separating the two syllables so that each cut like a stab.
"Look here, Wayne," Garth said stiffly, "if you, who have never done a single thing seriously in your life want to get sore because I have neglected a matter of no pressing importance-"
"Good Lord!" cried Wayne. "No pressing importance! You'd handle my business for me, keep all knowledge of a foreclosure from me, until the year of redemption had passed? You'd let Martin Leland close me out, would you? You and Hume and Leland would take the water from the river. Good God! I never thought this sort of thing of you or Leland! You'd all get rich by smashing me, and then you, you two-faced little cur, would buy the Bar L-M back from Leland for nothing, with money you'd taken from Arthur and me! Why, you petit [Transcriber's note: petty?] larceny sneak, I don't know why I am talking with you instead of slapping your dirty face!"
"If you will talk reasonably-"
"Talk reasonably? You're damned right I will! Why did Arthur borrow twenty-five thousand dollars to begin with? What went with it? Who got it?"
"I don't know what he wanted it for," snapped Garth. "I don't know what went with it. I suppose the man who murdered him robbed him, too."
"You don't mean he had a sum like that with him in cash?"
"Yes. He insisted upon it. I was with Leland when the money was turned over."
"And you-forgot-to tell me that!"
Conway, though his lips moved, made no audible reply. Wayne stood staring at him a moment, his face white with passion. Suddenly he cried out in a voice shaking with fury as he lifted one hand high above his head and brought it smashing down into his open palm.
"Get off of the place!" he shouted. "Sneak back to Leland; go whimper about Sledge Hume's legs. Tell Leland that I said that you are a damned scoundrel and that he's another! Tell him that I said that I am going to make the whole thieving pack of you eat out of my hand before I let up on you. And now, for God's sake, go!"
He whirled and went back to the house with long strides. He flung wide the door, and as he came swiftly to the fireplace, his face still white and hard, he thrust out his hand to Helga Strawn, grasping hers as though it had been a man's.
"I'm with you," he said crisply. "I'll see Ruf Ettinger myself to-morrow."
Her eyes which had been frowning during Dart's latest attempt to be entertaining, grew suddenly brilliant, her cheeks flushed happily.
"Dart," Wayne, continued, turning to the little man who had begun nodding his head approvingly when Wayne's shoulder had struck the door and who was still nodding, "you've done me a good turn to-night. I'm not ungrateful. But Miss-"
"Hazleton," prompted Dart.
"-will have to be going right away and I want to talk with her alone."
"Sure," agreed Dart. "I'll get my book and go down to the bunk house. I'm reading a swell story about a guy named Jupiter and a skirt named-"
For the first and only time on record Willie Dart stopped his flow of words because of the look he saw on a man's face. He went out snatching his book from the table as he passed. On his way to the bunk house he stopped long enough to shake his head and rub his chin.
"I'm giving odds, ten to one," he reflected, "that the Weak Sister don't loaf around here all night counting snowflakes."
"Something has happened, Mr. Shandon," Helga said sharply.
Shandon laughed shortly and picked up his pipe.
"A great deal has happened," he told her. "I've been a fool and an overgrown baby long enough. Let's get down to business. You can't stay here all night."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"For want of a chaperon, I suppose? I'm not worried about what people say or think, Mr. Shandon. And, besides, there's no place to go."
"You can't stay, any way," he answered a little roughly. "You can get back to the Leland place. They'll keep you over night. Now, let's get this thing straight. You hope to get back your property from Hume?"
Swiftly their roles had changed; he was dominant now, he asked his question in a tone that demanded an answer and she gave the answer.
"I can't tell you definitely. If you'll come to me in two weeks or a month I can tell you. For one thing, Hume is a man, I am a woman."
"You are going to try to make him fall in love with you?"
"Other men have done it," she said indifferently.
"Other men are not Sledge Hume. But that is your end of it. I am going to tie up Ruf Ettinger and any other stragglers I can get my hands on. If you can get back the property we'll take you in. We'll form a company, we'll pool our interests. We'll force these other fellows to sell to us at our own figure, by the Lord! I've got the water!"
"If I could force Sledge Hume to sell his inherited interest to me," she cried, "if I could make him sell to me as I sold to him, for a wretched twenty-five thousand dollars-"
"What!" he broke in excitedly. "How much did Hume pay you?"
"Twenty-five thousand. Why?" curiously.
"I remember the date exactly."
She told him. It was barely two weeks after the death of Arthur Shandon.
Sudden suspicion in Wayne Shandon's brain had sprung full grown into positive certainty.
"If you can't get your property back one way," was the last thing he said, "I can get it for you in another. Helga Strawn, you had better leave Sledge Hume to me."
* * *
Wanda Leland, her lithe body bending gracefully and easily as she drove her light skis over the glistening crust of the snow, shot down the last long slope in a sort of ecstasy inspired by the exhiliration of silent speed and the crisp brightness of the early afternoon. Stooping forward a little she took the short leap across the three foot wide gulch at the base of the knoll upon which the house stood, and laughed aloud as she landed and with gathered impetus sped a score of feet up the knoll itself.
She had left Wayne happy in the two things which mattered: He loved her even as she loved him; he was a strong man and a true. There was still sadness in her breast but it was but a sunspot in the great glory of her happiness. But now suddenly, even while her lips curved redly to her gay laughter, was the gladness to go out of her.
She saw Willie Dart upon the porch, saw him start towards her in an eagerness little less than frantic. He fairly hurled himself from the steps into the deep snow, floundered helplessly, and progressing by hard fought inches came on to meet her. As her skis, running up hill, came slowly to a stop she watched him with amused eyes. But when she saw his face, twisted with despair, she grew suddenly afraid.
"They've gone to arrest Red!" he wailed. "The sheriff and Hume and two other guys. Where is he?"
"He has gone back to the Bar L-M," she answered swiftly. "What do you mean?"
"I mean them crooks have gone to arrest him for murder," he called to her. "They left nearly an hour ago. It's a skin game of the worst kind. They want him tied up so they can work some sneaking gag and rob him of his land. Hume wants him where he can't ride a race in the spring so he'll grab Red's five thousand. The money's already up. God knows what else they've got up their dirty sleeves."
For one dizzy moment the girl grew faint with fear. And when that moment passed she saw clearly that as matters stood Wayne Shandon had a man's work ahead of him. Thrown into jail, charged with so serious a crime as fratricide, with Hume, and perhaps her own father, doing everything in the world that they could do to hamper him, he would be carrying a handicap to break the back of a man's hope.
"They mustn't do this thing!" she cried passionately, the eyes that had been tender a moment ago growing fierce. "Does my father know this?"
"Sure," grunted Dart disgustedly. "He's one of the combine."
"And they left an hour ago?"
"Seems like a million years. It must be awful close to an hour. Say, Wanda, I tried, honest to God, I did-"
She did not hear. She had turned away from him and was staring at the long billowing sweep of snow lying between her and those men who had gone to arrest Wayne Shandon. She saw the broken imprints of the Canadian snowshoes, the smooth tracks of the skis, and demanded sharply:
"Which men wore the webs?"
"Them tennis racket things? MacKelvey and one of his thieves."
He looked at her wonderingly. What difference did that make? But Wanda took no time for explanations. She was thinking swiftly that MacKelvey would be the man to make the arrest, that the others would accommodate their gait to his, that upon a crust like this the Canadian shoes could make no such speed as a pair of skis.
"Tell mamma, no one else, where I have gone," she cried.
And, swinging about, she took the side of the knoll in a long sweep, shot down into a hollow, rose upon the far side, crossed the trail that the four men had made, seemed to Mr. Dart's staring eyes to be balancing a moment upon a line where snow and sky met and then was gone from him, dropping out of sight into the wilderness of snow.
"She's some game little kid," he moaned, shaking his head and making a slow retreat back to the house. "But with them cutthroats an hour ahead of her, she ain't got a show. Poor old Red."
But Wanda's heart was beating steadily now, her muscles were obeying the calm command of her will, and she was telling herself resolutely that she did have a chance. MacKelvey and Hume and the others would see no imperative need for a wild burst of speed; they would travel swiftly but they would not know that she was moving more swiftly behind them. Up and down hill they would go step by step while she, following the way she knew so well, the trails she had followed winter after winter, would find the long slopes down which she would shoot like a flash of light. It was more than possible that they would take over two hours in making the trip; she must make it in less than an hour.
"If I had only come home half an hour sooner," she cried as she fought her oblique way up a ridge she must top, "I could have laughed at them. God be with me and I'll laugh at them yet!"
She was going too fast; she came to the crest of the ridge panting, her heart beating wildly, her body shaking. She sought to relax her muscles as she took the long racing ride down upon the far side. She went more slowly as she climbed the next ridge. She was thinking coolly now, she saw the need both of speed and of a conservation of energy. She felt no fatigue from the trip of the forenoon; she had rested long at the cave with Wayne; and yet she knew that unless she saved her strength she would be unfit for the last burst of speed at the end.
She did not follow the track the four men had left. She knew these woods too well to lose a precious yard now. Where they had turned here and there to avoid thick clumps of firs the girl, looking far ahead, economised strength and shortened distances.
"Imust get there first," she cried over and over again. "If these men will do the sort of thing Wayne says that they have done, if they will stop at nothing to gain their ends, what hope has he if they arrest him and charge him with Arthur's murder? There will be evidence, they will make evidence, and he will be in jail where he can not help himself."
Once she heard a faint cracking sound under her feet and her heart stopped. If a ski had broken now- But it was only a dead brush, snow covered, and one of the lifeless twigs had snapped. She became more careful of the way, wary of being tricked by the blinding snow that appeared level when there were mounds and hollows that might have broken a ski had she been careless and unlucky. The sudden hideous fancy leaped out upon her that the breaking of a ski now might mean the death of a man, the only man in the world for her.
At last, from the crest of the highest ridge, the one from which each year she took her favourite ride down to the river, she caught sight of the little party that menaced Wayne Shandon's liberty. The men had been making better time than she had let herself believe they would; evidently MacKelvey wanted to get the thing over with, to get back to the Echo Creek that night. Beyond them, straight ahead, was the bridge.
"I can't do it! I can't do it!" she cried aloud, her voice broken with hopelessness.
Even as she hesitated, poising upon the top of the rise, one of the men far ahead turned and saw her. It was Sledge Hume. She saw his quick gesture; she almost fancied that she could hear his laugh. He would know why she followed them. He would be mocking her. Oh, how she hated the man then!
"They will leave one of the deputies at the bridge," she thought in despair. "He won't let me across. Oh, God, if there were only another crossing!"
There was another crossing; a snowshoe rabbit had shown it to her . He had sought to leap it just to save the little flame of life in the tiny furred breast. He had gone to his death valiantly, but he had shown her the place, the short cut, the way that was full of menace and yet that was possible.
Her face whitened; she hesitated just a fraction of a second, balancing. Now the men were following the wide crescent of the curve which would lead them to the bridge. There was another course lying straight between the two tips of that crescent, and a great gap filled with the thunder of raging water against crags that were like the horrible teeth of a monster, broke the short cut in two.
Again Hume had turned; she noted even across the distance the contemptuous carriage of his big body and she knew that he was laughing. And again, as though it were already just before her, she fancied that she saw the chasm of the river.
"It is Wayne's ruin, it maybe Wayne's death, if they take him now!"
It seemed to her that it had not been her voice, that whispered the words. It seemed that they had come to her from the air, that some one else had spoken them. And as, hesitating no longer, she stooped forward and sped down the long slope, she swerved still further from the track the four men had made, heading straight to the river above them, opposite the Bar L-M ranch house, straight toward the only way that was left her.
She had made up her mind. She was resolute now and yet she was frightened. In a little while the roar of the river smote her ears and it seemed at once to call to her and jeer at her. She fancied that it was like Hume's voice, mocking her. She remembered just how the banks fell straight down to the whirlpools; she remembered again the splash of the falling snow when she had come so close to her death. The very feeling that had gripped her then, like ice against the beatings of her heart, gripped her now. She was as one in a nightmare, drawn on, rushing on to the peril from which she shrank.