Authors: Jackson Gregory
She lost sight of Hume and the rest as she left the straight, cleared roadway and the trees came between her and them.
"They're all the same," Sledge Hume was laughing as he turned and waited a moment for MacKelvey to come up with him. "I never saw a woman yet who wasn't willing to tackle the impossible in a flash and then go to pieces with hysterics in the middle of the job."
On, gathering speed with the flinging of each yard behind her, her polished skis singing as they leaped downward, hardly seeming to touch the brittle crust of snow underfoot, standing erect that she might see far ahead and turn in time for a mound that spoke of a boulder, Wanda was rushing on toward the river. Its shouting voices, like the voices of many giant things In brutal laughter, swelled and thundered ever more distinct, ever more jeering. It seemed to her that there were ten thousand Sledge Humes taunting her, sneering at the blind recklessness of a mere woman. She knew that the blood had crept out of her face and that she was afraid. And she knew that there is one thing in the world, God-created, that is greater, stronger than fear.
"I have leaped distances greater than that before," she told herself stubbornly.
"With certain death dragging at you if you missed?" the rude laughter of the river through its rocky way taunted her.
Her skis were running slowly again; she had come to the level land once more. She must make a little turn to avoid the thick grove through which she had gone slowly last year after the rabbit. She must turn upstream a little too. There were ten minutes of driving one ski after the other, then the steep climb of another ridge, the last ridge lying between her and the river. She climbed it swiftly, stubbornly and unhesitatingly.
"If Wayne were coming to me would he hesitate?" she asked herself angrily. "Because I am not a man am I a coward? Shall I fail him the first time in our lives that he has need of me? Is a woman like that a fit thing to be a strong man's wife?"
At the top of this last climb she paused. She was not afraid now. The colour had come back into her face, her blood was running steadily. She might be going to her death. Was death then so great a thing? Was it as great as her love?
"If I were afraid now," she told herself quietly, "I should know that I do not love Wayne as other women have loved other men. Then I should not deserve to live to love him weakly."
From here she could not see MacKelvey, Hume and the others. She knew that by this time they would have crossed the bridge. Then she tried not to think of them. Briefly she studied the steep sloping sweep of the snow, trying to mark the way she must go. She found the spot the rabbit had chosen, the narrowest place with the far bank three or four feet lower than the near bank. Frowningly seeking the detail of a sheet of glaring white which seemed without mound or hollow but which she knew was full of uneven ridges and sinks, she made out at last such a ridge lying parallel to the river's edge and close to it. A log had fallen there; she remembered having seen it in the summer. With the little hollow this side, with the short upward slope that would give her a natural take-off, she would make it help her.
She would strike this low up-sloping mound in a moment when she swept down upon it from the crest of the ridge upon which she now stood; she would take the tiny dip in a fraction of a second too brief to have a name; she would rise, leaping as she rose-
The supreme moment came.
She loosened the band about her waist, breathing deeply. She bent her slender body this way and that, straightening up, stooping, twisting from side to side. She felt that every individual muscle must be made ready, keyed up to the work that was to be done in a flying moment. She must be steady, she must be sure. Not a fibre of her being must weaken or tremble or be uncertain.
"Dear God," she whispered, "make me strong and worthy and unafraid."
Then she lifted her hands a little, holding them out from her sides, her fingers outstretched, her arms taking the place of the pole she had tossed away. Her skis clung to the snow. She slipped the right foot back and forth, making sure that it had gathered none of the feathery stuff that lay just under the thin crust. When it ran smoothly she tested the left ski. And then slowly she stooped forward, her hands still out. She felt a little stir, knew that she was moving, just barely moving. She stooped further forward now, quickly. The shifting of her weight had its instantaneous effect. The slow, scarcely perceptible moving was changed into a smooth glide that grew in a yard to a swiftly accelerating speed. Then she straightened up, balancing with taut muscles, rushing downward.
Now she was flying as a bird flies that skims the snow. Only the little whine of the ski song over the crust, the flying particles from before the upturned ends, a dust of diamonds, told that the speeding body was not in reality defying gravity, scorning the earth beneath. The pitch steepened before her, the skis rose and dipped over the little uneven places, the air cut at her face, stung her eyes. Half way down, when the skis struck a little mound from which she dared not try to swerve, she in sober truth flew, not touching the crust again for five or six feet. She landed easily, crouching a little, tensing her already taut muscles, steadying herself, plunging onward at a speed that was like an eagle's dip. And then another second, another and she heard the whine of the air about her ears, saw the black gulf from which the roar of the river boomed up at her and her skis rose to the take-off she had chosen.
As never before in all her life did the girl's will call upon the muscles of her body. Her hands far out now, like the still pinions of some strange being of a strange white world, her lithe body as tense as wire, she gathered her strength, felt her body rising as the skis slipped up the short slope of the mound, knew that in one flying second there lay both success and death. At the very instant, when, had she let herself go, she would be slipping down to the water that was grinding at the rocks, she leaped.
Higher and higher she rose in the air, carried onward, upward by the impetus of her wild race and by the slight aid of her take-off had given her. Higher yet and further out although it seemed to her still heart that her body was hanging motionless, that it was the earth leaping beneath her, flying backward, rushing away, hurling the chasm of the river under her. She did not look down; it might have meant death to look down. She kept her eyes fastened now upon the far bank, the place where she sought to land, where she must throw herself forward to avoid slipping back.
And yet she saw the black gulf under her. It was too black, too wide, too full of shrieking menace for her not to see it even while she did not look at it. She was hanging still in air, it was rushing at her, there was an instant filled with eternity. And then, Wayne's name upon her lips, she had described the great arc, she had struck six feet from the treacherous margin on the far side, her skis were running smoothly under her, at first swiftly, then slowly, and a glad cry of thankfulness broke from her lips.
She had not even fallen, she did not have to hurl herself prone to clutch at the snow with her fingers. She sped on, came slowly to a standstill and then her heart leaping, her blood racing, her eyes bright and wet she was over the ridge and speeding forward again, the roar of the river lost to her ears, the form of a man bringing a horse out of a snow surrounded barn in her eyes.
He cried out as he saw her racing across the snow to him, cried out in wonder. He dropped his horse's rope and turned to meet her. She saw that he was still on his skis, saw too that not a thousand yards beyond the house four men were coming on swiftly.
"Wayne." She had come close enough to call now and lifted her voice clearly. "MacKelvey and Hume and two more men are there, right there. They are going to arrest you for Arthur's murder. They mean to keep you shut up in jail until they ruin you. They will make evidence to hang you. You must go, go quick."
He swung about quickly, caught sight of the four men who had seen Wanda and who were lessening the distance by quick strides. His face blackened to a great anger. Then he turned back to her and his face flushed with a great happiness. For in the man as in the woman love was stronger than fear or hatred.
"You golden hearted, wonderful woman!" he cried softly. He reached out his arms as she swept by and gathered her into them. He kissed her softly. And then, swiftly, he turned away.
"After a few days, come to the cave," he said eagerly. "If I let them take me now it would mean more than my ruin, more than my death, Wanda. They won't take me. When a man is arrested for Arthur's murder it is going to be the right man."
And striking out mightily, steadily he left her, driving his straight way toward the broken country of the upper end of the valley.
When they came to where she lay, Hume first, they found Wanda Leland very still and white, motionless save for the little sobs shaking her. Hume's anger broke out into a wordy fury. He shook his fist at her prostrate body and cursed. But he did not sneer. There was too deep a wonder in his heart. He knew, they all knew, what it meant to have done what she had done. And MacKelvey, a hard man robbed by her of his prey, took off his hat and lifted her gently and said simply, and in full reverence:
* * *
"You are no longer daughter of mine!" cried Martin Leland sternly in the first heat of his anger. "You have turned against your own blood like a traitress. You have forsaken your father to ally yourself with a drunken brawler, a man so sunken in depravity that he has murdered his own brother for mere money. You have shamed yourself and your mother and me. You have bared your heart for the world to look at and laugh at, that men may link your name and the name of a common fugitive from justice. You would be held up to less shame had you merely uncovered your body and gone out naked for men to jeer at!"
Wanda, lying white and lax upon the couch near the fireplace, suddenly dropped her mother's hand and sprang to her feet, her body quivering with a quick anger that leaped out to meet her father's.
"Papa!" Her head was thrown up in defiant pride, her vibrant voice, her blazing eyes were as hard as his own. "I won't listen to such things, not even from you. They are untrue. You say that Wayne ran away because he is guilty and a coward. You know better than that! He is not a fugitive from justice; he is forced by the things you have done to become a fugitive from injustice and persecution. Oh, how can you stand there and denounce him after you have set your hand against him as you have? Or don't you think that I know how you and the rest have sought to rob him and ruin him!"
"What!" stormed Leland. "Is the girl mad?"
"No, I am not mad," she flung back at him hotly, all facts and considerations swept away before the rush of her furious indignation except the one vital matter that she was fighting for a thing as dear as her lover's life. "You can find no name too bad for him, just because you hate him! You have always hated him just because he is his father's son. You and his own cousin, two men whom he has trusted, have tricked him and betrayed him. You have hidden from him all knowledge of the mortgage you held upon the Bar L-M. Even now you are trying to steal his ranch from him. Wayne has never done a thing so vile as that in all his life. Oh! I am ashamed."
Her voice grew harsh in her throat; her face was no longer white, two spots of anger burned in her cheeks. She broke off panting, her eyes growing harder, brighter as they challenged his.
"Martin," cried Mrs. Leland, coming swiftly to the girl's side. "Be careful."
"Careful!" shouted Leland, his face red with his fury. "When one of my blood loses her last shred of decency, when she takes up with a low, dissolute unprincipled Shandon? The worst of a bad lot. May God curse him, may God curse her if she clings to him!"
"You have never spoken to me like this before," cried Wanda passionately. "You will never do it again."
"Listen to me," thundered Leland, his heavier voice drowning the girl's words. "If your father does a thing which your untrained, woman's brain cannot rightly understand are you the one to judge and condemn him? Because a lying Shandon has cast his cursed spell over your romantic fancies are you to leap to these ridiculous conclusions? Am I the man to do a dishonourable thing? Ask other men out in the world where my dealings are an open book. Ask your mother. If, to you, who have gone hungering for lies to a man amply competent to tell them to you, it has seemed that I have done a mean thing for selfish purposes is it your place to judge me? Listen, I tell you. I have known for a year and a half that Wayne Shandon murdered his brother and robbed the dead body. I have seen, although all men know this fact as well as I do, that he has been trickster enough to cover his bloody tracks; that it would be hard to convict him in court. I have seen that it lay within my power, that it has become my duty, to punish him in another way. Not a thing have I done that is not just, that the law courts will not sanction. And yet, when I had wrested from him the thing his red hands took with his brother's life, I should have punished him a little as he deserves. Is a man like him deserving of any other treatment?"
"How do you know all this?" she demanded, all that dormant fierceness of the female heart Hashing from the depths to the surface. "Did you see him kill Arthur?"
"Don't be a fool," he retorted.
"Or were you over ready to believe because you hated him, and because the tool you would lay your hand to would not only punish him but enrich you? And you call me traitress!"