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Authors: Jackson Gregory

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BOOK: The Short Cut
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For a moment Martin Leland, his face convulsed, his hands clenched, his great body towering over her, looked as though he were going to strike her down. Then, without a word, he left the room and returned swiftly to the study where MacKelvey and Hume were waiting for him.

Wanda stood looking after him, her body stiff and erect, her face lifted, her eyes unchanging. Her mother laid a quick hand upon the girl's arm. Then, suddenly the tired body relaxed, the flaming spirit softened, and Wanda, white and trembling, dropped sobbing upon the couch.

"Wanda, Wanda," whispered her mother softly, kneeling and putting her hands gently upon the shaking shoulders. "I am sorry. And yet, Wanda, I am proud of what my daughter has done to-day."

The mother heart comforted. And even before the storm of sobs, shaken from the girl by strained and jangling nerves, had ceased, Mrs. Leland was trying to make excuses for her husband.

"He has just been blinded by hate," she said bravely. "Some day he will see the light."

"Gee," commented Willie Dart, outside the door, resuming his pacing up and down upon the front porch. "If Red turns that girl down I'll marry her myself!"

Had Martin Leland's iron nature asked such a thing as sympathy it would have received little satisfaction from the interview that night in his study. MacKelvey's greeting to him was, "Martin, that girl of yours is a wonder! There's not a man in the country would have tackled the thing she did to-day."

"Pshaw," grunted Hume, his sneering manner having come back to him with his growing displeasure. "It was simple enough for all of its spectacular staging."

"Was it?" MacKelvey asked sharply. "I'll bet you five hundred dollars, Mr. Hume, that you're not the man to do it!"

Hume lifted his shoulders for answer and kicked viciously at the andirons on the hearth.

"So you let him get clean away?" demanded Martin, flinging himself into his chair at the table and glowering at MacKelvey. "Why didn't you follow him up?"

"Because I wasn't a fool. Wouldn't I cut a pretty picture slipping around on a pair of sticks trying to catch up with the strongest ski man in the county! He'd double up on me every mile. And with the night coming on I'd stand a great chance finding him, wouldn't I?"

"What are you going to do about it then?"

MacKelvey spat thoughtfully at the fire.

"I'm going to nab him the first chance I get. And I'm not in the habit of carrying a warrant around in my pocket until I wear it out, either."

"You are going out after him in the morning?"

MacKelvey again attacked the fire with more thoughtfulness, truer precision than before.

"Nope. I'm going back to El Toyon while I can get out. There's about ten feet more snow due in the next two weeks, Martin."

"So," cried Hume. "That's the way you serve a warrant, is it? You are going to let the man get away if he wants to, and he has shown us already how he feels about that! You are going to let him slip down to Mexico or work up to the Canadian line."

"Easy, Mr. Hume," said MacKelvey slowly. "I've been sheriff in this county for seventeen years. Name me the name of any man who's been wanted and who hasn't been brought in. If I stuck here, running around like a rabbit in the snow, Shandon would have the chance to get out, if he wanted it. And I don't believe that he does want it. But if I'm back in El Toyon to-morrow with the wires busy there won't be a hole in the web for a blue bottle to buzz through. He can't eat snow, you know. I'll put a man up here to see he don't slip back to the Bar L-M. And I don't say I won't go myself or send Johnson and Crawford out in the morning to try and pick up his tracks if it don't snow during the night and cover them up."

But long before midnight it came on to snow again, so heavily that they all knew that a fresh ski track would not have lasted an hour. Early the next morning Leland, Garth Conway, Sledge Hume and MacKelvey with his deputies went out of the valley upon skis or snow shoes. Helga Strawn went with them, shrugging her shoulders at Leland's blunt assurance that it would be a good ten miles of hard work before they could expect to take to the horses waiting beyond the heavy snow line.

Mr. Dart did not go with them. He had settled that fact for himself very positively before going to bed the night before.

"In the first place," he decided, "Red might need me to smuggle him some grub or something and I got to be on hand. In the second place I had enough trying to ride two slippery sticks yesterday. Split myself in two for ten miles on a pair of devil's toboggans? Thanks awfully. I'll stay here and split stovewood for Julia."

"Where's Dart?" demanded Leland when the men were pushing back their chairs from the breakfast table.

Nobody knew. He had not been seen since last evening. Julia, hastily returning from quest of him, brought back word that he was in bed and that she was afraid that he was unwell. She had heard him groaning.

"The little fool is faking," cried Martin, ready this morning to fly into a rage over trifles. "Does he think I'm going to have him sticking around the place all winter?"

He flung himself from the table and went heavily up the stairs to Dart's room in the attic.

"Come out of that," he said roughly, throwing the door open. "We are going to start right away. You'd better get some breakfast in a hurry if you want any."

"Breakfast?" moaned Dart weakly. "Good God, Mart. Don't say breakfast to me or I'll die."

"What's the matter?" asked Martin roughly and suspiciously. "You weren't sick last night."

He came closer to the huddled figure. Dart's hands were shaking, his face was as white as a sheet.

"It came on sudden," he said faintly. "I-I've had it before. I-I think I'm dying this time. Has Mamma Leland got a Bible?"

Suddenly, before Leland's astonished eyes, the little man began a violent retching and vomiting. Leland went back down the stairs, swearing, and sent Julia with word to Mrs. Leland that Dart was really sick.

Dart got out of bed, his legs trembling under him, and crept to the window, peering out cautiously. Only when he had seen the party leave the house upon skis and webs did he go back to his bed, snatch a bit of plug cut chewing tobacco out from under his pillow and hurl it venemously into the snow.

"A man that will chew that stuff for fun," he groaned creeping back into bed, "ain't safe to have around. Good God, I wonder if I am dying? I might have took too much!"

* * * * * *

Thus it happened that almost at the very beginning of the hard winter Wayne Shandon was a hunted man, forewarned that his hunters would spare neither unsleeping vigilance nor expense to secure his arrest and conviction. During the first night and the first day he never went far from the Bar L-M range house. From behind a screen of timber less than a quarter of a mile from his pursuers he had watched them turn back towards the Echo Creek. The darkness was already dimming the landscape but he could count the figures, five of them, with the horse Wanda had insisted that MacKelvey bring out with them. As they went toward the bridge he came down toward them, moving swiftly among the trees, keeping well out of sight.

He knew he would be doing the thing upon which MacKelvey would not count. Besides it was sheer madness to think of spending the night without shelter of any kind and he did not dare go immediately to Wanda's cave. Already he had come to think of that place, high above the treetops and as safely hidden as if it were below the earth's surface, as a place of refuge. If he went there now they would track him to-morrow-unless it snowed. He must wait somewhere until the snow came to wipe out the track he would leave behind him.

He entered the house by the back door, got his rifle and a belt of cartridges, made into a compact pack such blankets, tobacco, coffee, sugar, salt and condensed foods as he could carry. The cave was already well stocked but he could not guess now how long he must lie hidden there. He had no time to decide upon the course ahead of him beyond the immediate future. He knew only that he must not let them take him until he had done the work he would be unable to do from the inside of a jail. He was preparing carefully for such needs as he could foresee.

He slept that night in his own bed, waking at each little noise, ready to spring up fully dressed and armed, prepared equally for defence or a hasty retreat. Going to the window shortly after midnight he saw that the snow was falling heavily. He made a hasty cold meal, then strapped on his pack, took up his rifle and left the house. Now was the time to go to the cave; the snow might cease by morning.

In the darkness he deemed it wiser to go down by the bridge than to attempt the steeper passage beyond the head of the lake. They would not be out in this sort of night watching for him; they would not know where to expect him. And even if he came within twenty paces of a man his swift, silent passage in the dark would be unnoticed.

To a man knowing the broken range country a whit less intimately than Shandon knew it, the trip that night down to the bridge, across it, across the Leland ranch and to the cliffs where the cave was would have been a sheer impossibility. The storm, howling and snatching at him, would have taken the heart out of a man less grimly determined than he had grown to be. The snow, while it befriended him, covering his trail in the rear, drove its shifting wall of opposition across his way in front. The darkness tricked him and baffled him again and again. But still, head down and dogged, he pushed on, certain always of his general direction, confident of being under the cliffs in the first faint glow of the new day.

It was an endless night, torturous with cold and uncertainty. But at last, before the day broke, he made his heavy way up the great cedar, climbing perilously with numbed hands. He knew that if his pursuers came here now they would see where he had knocked the thick pads of snow from the wide horizontal branches. But he knew, too, that before they could arrive the steadily falling snow would have hidden the signs he had left behind him. And at last, wearily, he threw himself down before a crackling fire, and went to sleep.

For upwards of two weeks his life was like that of a rat in a cellar. Silence, monotony, darkness, loneliness. Already the snowfall was as great as that of most winters. He could guess that by this time the fences about Wanda's home were hidden under a smooth covering that thickened day by day, night after night. When he looked out from the screen across his doorway he saw that the smaller trees were blotted out and reckoned that upon the level floor of the valley the snow lay ten feet deep. Now and again, when he went out in the early dawn or the last glimmering light of dusk for wood or for a break in the monotony that was horrible in itself to a man of his type, he saw how the winter was piling higher and higher its white heaps along the cliffs above. He spent hours on the cliffs, working his way slowly upward along the seam in the rocks which he discovered led out above, digging with his hands for dead branches to replenish his dwindling stock of firewood. He must choose days for this when the snow so thickened the air that a man within shouting distance could not have seen him.

Two weeks, and Wanda did not come to him. Two weeks of inactivity, of waiting, the hardest trial in the world for a man tingling with energy, with his work calling to him through every moment of his waking hours. He had planned that work, going over and over his plans, every step. He knew just what he should do-when Wanda came.

He could not know why she did not come. He began to fear that she had left the valley. Then, when he assured himself that she would not have gone without a word he began to fear that she was ill; that the day when she took the short cut had been too much for any woman's endurance.

But she was not ill, he was certain of that. During the two weeks there were only two days when the air cleared enough for him to see the Leland house. The first came when he had been in hiding three days; the other two days later. Both times Wanda had come out upon the porch where with the spy-glass in the cave he could see her plainly. She had signalled him, using the first few signals of that code they had made together so merrily. She lifted both hands up to her face and he knew that her heart was repeating his words, "I love you, dear, with my whole heart." She loitered on the porch in apparent carelessness, but as eager as the man watching her, yearning for her, she had lifted her hood lightly from her head, flashing the message across the miles: "Be careful. We are being watched." She turned her back and stood for a long time looking in at the open living room door: "Something has happened to prevent our meeting to-day."

Several times during the two clear days she repeated her signals. But for more than a week afterward he had no sight of her. He did not know, he could only guess vaguely at the truth. One of MacKelvey's men had come back to the Echo Creek, unexpected by Wanda and Mrs. Leland, and while he was apparently concerned only in making frequent trips toward the Bar L-M, Wanda had the uneasy feeling that she was never long out of his sight.

But at length Wanda risked coming to him, choosing a time when the danger was least. Johnson, the deputy sheriff, had said in the morning that he was going to take a run over to the Bar L-M, to look things over. It was by no means the first time he had said this, and the girl felt that he had no particular reason to suspect her to-day. It was still snowing, not too heavily for one to venture out, but steadily enough to obliterate ski tracks entirely in less than an hour. Johnson left the house, and a little later Wanda set forth, her preparations swiftly made. Johnson was out of sight. She drove on swiftly to a hilltop due east of the house from which she would be able to see him before he came to the bridge.

BOOK: The Short Cut
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