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Authors: Jackson Gregory

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She waited anxiously there until she saw him, pushing steadily onward. One sharp glance at the way she had come showed her that unless Johnson returned very much faster than he had gone out there would be no sign to tell him where she had gone. And then, her eyes suddenly brighter than they had been for many a day, she hastened on, still eastward, not daring even now to turn directly toward the cliffs until she had passed into the deeper forest.

It was like bringing new life to Wayne Shandon. He swept the girl up hungrily into his arms, crying out softly as she came through the snow blocked entrance to the cave. And she, when he brought a candle and her eyes caught sight of his face, bearded and worn, must shut her lips tight and fight hard to keep back the tears.

It was only a brief half hour allowed them, leaving them both happier and sadder at the parting. But she had brought the few little things she could smuggle out to him, had assured herself from a close examination of his store that he was in no danger of freezing or starving; and he had entrusted to her the carrying out of the work he had hit upon.

"I have scribbled a letter in your little note book, dear. It is to Brisbane, a lawyer in San Francisco. He is a friend of mine and I can trust him. It tells him everything, about the mortgage and the foreclosure, about the trouble I am in. He's the man to advise us now. There's not a keener criminal lawyer in the State. I'm going to give him my power of attorney. I'll take chances on slipping down to the city, somehow, if it's necessary. Or I can get down into White Rock at night, meet him there, and get back here before morning. The letter tells him, too, that I am dead certain that Sledge Hume is the man the law wants; it explains why, and authorises him to hire a detective agency to run Hume down. Dear heart of mine, you are too brave to be afraid for me now. You will get this letter out somehow? You will get it to Brisbane for me? Once he is at work things are going to right themselves. A man can't kill another and rob him of twenty-five thousand dollars and not leave some sort of a trail behind him. Then there is another message. I have not written it. Can you get word to Big Bill to keep a close watch on Little Saxon? I'll ride him in the spring."

"And you, Wayne? You can't stay here all winter!"

"I can, if there is anything to be gained by it. But we'll wait until we hear from Brisbane. He'll find the evidence we want, dear. And until then hadn't you rather think of me waiting here than lying in jail?"

When she left him to take a devious way home the tears lay glistening upon her cheek until the snow, beating in her face, washed them away.

* * *

"I tell you, Hume, I don't like it. It's a piece of damned highway robbery and I'm rotten sorry I ever got mixed up in it."

Charlie Granger, stake holder of ten thousand dollars, cut viciously at the June grass with his riding quirt and snapped his words out bluntly as he came striding up to Hume. The latter stood, booted and spurred, among a group of men who had travelled across ten miles of broken country to this, the stipulated starting place of the race in which Hume and Shandon had months ago been the sole entries. Hume carelessly good natured, indifferent as usual, openly gratified over a bit of sharp work, merely laughed.

"You might as well hand over the money now, Charlie," he retorted without turning, his steely eyes brightening as they rested upon his mount, Endymion, who was fretting at the restraint imposed upon him by the man at his head. "The agreement took care of just such a matter as this; if only one man rides he gets the money."

Among the knot of men upon the little, pine fringed knoll, were Big Bill, Dart, MacKelvey and half a dozen of the curious from El Toyon and the mountain ranches. Hume's retort was taken in silence. But there was not a man who smiled or who did not think as Granger had spoken. Long ago, when it had first gone abroad that Wayne Shandon was promoting these races, the one essential thing he had planned had been thoroughly understood to be fair play, square dealing, straight racing. These were fair minded men, and although there was more than one among them who believed the fugitive guilty of the crime imputed to him, there was none who did not see the rank injustice of what was going to happen. The feature race of the day would be stolen. And they knew at whose instigation it was that Wayne Shandon was not here to-day.

It was early afternoon and already a number of the events had been run off before a clamorous, enthusiastic crowd of five hundred men and women. The Bar L-M at the surly orders of Big Bill had been turned into a place breathing welcome and revelry. Tents had been pitched under the big pines, making a white city gay with bunting and flags that would accommodate many visitors during the night; tables that had been constructed out in the open staggered under the load of provisions the wagons had brought from the nearest town; a platform for dancing later was already the playground of laughing children and frisking dogs.

The shorter races had taken place upon the flats below the range house, down toward the bridge. Under the glowing June sun, through the crisp air, with blue sky above and green grass underfoot, the contesting horses, each ridden by its owner, had shot by the brief lived village of tents, thundered past the platform where the judges sat, cheered and shrieked at by men and women. There had been races of half a mile, of a mile, of two miles. And now, as the hour appointed drew close, people began to forget that they had come to a race course, and to remember that their entertainment, open handedly given, came from a man who was a fugitive from justice and who was going to be robbed under their eyes of five thousand dollars. That strange thing, public sentiment, swerved abruptly. There were many men there that day who shook their heads and spoke in low voices, mentioning Sledge Hume's name.

"If Shandon could be tried by a jury picked from this crowd," meditated Edward Kinsell, "he'd go scot free in ten minutes!"

What this small group of men had to do upon the knoll ten miles from the Bar L-M was done perfunctorily and in gloom. Little by little, man by man, they drew away from Hume, leaving him standing alone. They looked at his horse, by long odds the finest animal they had seen this day, and from Endymion they looked to his master. Now and then a quick glance went to Big Bill. He said no word. His face was black with a wrath that seemed to choke him.

The starter, Dick Venable of White Rock, looked at his watch and this time did not return it to his pocket.

"It's two minutes of one," he said, his voice snapping out hard and curt. "This race is scheduled to start at one o'clock. All ready, Mr. Hume?"

"All ready," laughed Hume. He stepped to Endymion's head, jerked off the halter and swung up into the saddle.

"All ready, Shandon?"

Again Hume laughed. Dick Venable waited a moment and snapped his watch shut.

"My job's to start this race if there's one man here to run it," he said. "Shandon isn't here. It isn't my job to express any opinions. The first horse, ridden by either Sledge Hume or Wayne Shandon, to cross that line as a start and to break the tape by the platform at the Bar L-M wins the money. When I fire a gun you're off, Hume. Ready!"

The men began to turn away. Hume sat erect on his horse, coldly indifferent to the opinion these men held of him. He moved so that he held Endymion's restless head over the line marked by Venable's boot.

"All right, Charlie?" Venable asked of Granger.

"All right," grunted Granger. "And wrong as hell. Get it over with."

Venable raised his arm, his revolver high above his head. The bystanders swung up to their horses' backs. Two miles away another little group of men with field glasses were upon a ridge from which they could see the start, from which they in turn could signal the word to the crowd at the Bar L-M.

"Go!" said Venable listlessly.

There was a little puff of white smoke, the crack of a revolver, and Hume, laughing again, struck in his spurs and rode swiftly down the long slope. The men upon the ridge two miles off, as listless as Venable had been, ran up a big white sheet to flutter from a dead pine. This was the signal that the race was on, and that just one man was riding.

Suddenly Willie Dart was galvanized into excited action. He ran to Dick Venable, grasped him by the arm with both shaking hands, thrusting up a red face, and whispered eagerly. Venable started, stared at him and demanded sharply:

"What's that!"

But Dart had fled wildly to Jimmie Denbigh, the second starter and had whispered the same words to him. Denbigh stared as Venable had done and then with swift, long strides returned from his horse to Venable's side, close to the starting line.

Big Bill had mounted and was riding away, his eyes on the ground, refusing to follow the figure of a man he had come to hate most thoroughly. MacKelvey had gone to his horse and was jerking loose its tie rope. Dart was now close to MacKelvey's side.

Venable and Denbigh, conversing swiftly in undertones, looked blankly at each other, then at Dart's noncommittal back.

"The biggest little liar," began Venable disgustedly-

Hume was already a quarter of a mile on his way, riding on at a rocking gallop, a little eager, as was his way, to have the money waiting for him in his possession. But suddenly he turned abruptly in his saddle. There had come to him a great shout, the clamour of men's voices.

From the fringe of trees just back of the knoll, not a hundred yards from where MacKelvey and Dart stood, a great red bay horse shot from the thick shadows into the bright sunlight, floating mane and tall spun silk that flashed out like shimmering gold. And the same sunlight splashed like fire on the red, red hair of the man sitting straight in the saddle come at this late hour to ride his race at his own meet.

"Good God, it's Red Reckless!" boomed a startled voice.

Little Saxon cleared the fallen log in his way and as men swung hastily to their horses or drew back from before him he came on, running like a great, gaunt greyhound. Many voices were lifted, shouting. MacKelvey heard and understood. He shoved his foot into its stirrup and as he leaped into the saddle his revolver jumped out into his hand.

"I call upon you to give yourself up!" he shouted. "Stop, Red, or I shoot this time!"

[Illustration: "I call upon you to give yourself up!" he shouted. "Stop, Red, or I shoot this time!"]

Dart held a trimmed branch in his hand and as MacKelvey called Dart struck. The blow fell heavily upon the sheriff's wrist. MacKelvey cursed, wheeled his horse and without heeding Dart shouted again to Shandon.

Venable and Denbigh, forewarned by Dart's quick whispered words, had their eyes upon Shandon. They ran to the line that marked the start and stood, one at each end of it, their eyes bright, their hands pointing so that Shandon's start should be fair. And Shandon, tossing back his head as he rode, rushed down towards them, shot between them, turned down the knoll after Hume.

The gun in MacKelvey's hand spat flame and lead. The bullet, aimed high, hissed above Shandon's head.

"Stop!" cried the sheriff lustily, driving his spurs into his own horse's sides and dashing across the line between Venable and Denbigh. "By God, Red, I'll kill you!"

"Give him a chance, man!" bellowed Big Bill, his voice shaking, his face red. "Look at that damned cur Hume."

Hume had seen and again had turned, was bending over his horse's neck, using his spurs in the first start of his surprise. The men over yonder had an inkling of what was happening and their glasses were turned steadily upon the knoll.

Shandon without turning, laughed aloud, all the relief after months of hiding breaking out into laughter that was utterly unlike the sound that had come so short a time ago from Hume's contemptuous lips. It was a great, boyish, carefree, reckless laugh that made men wonder.

"Next time, Mac," he shouted back. "Ten to one you can't catch me before I beat Hume to it!"

Almost in his own words of many months ago Big Bill was muttering softly,

"God! What a pair of them!"

More than a quarter of a mile away Sledge Hume, his jaws hard set, his eyes burning ominously, was racing on, saving his horse a little now. Down the knoll drove Red Shandon, rushing on his race with a handicap in front and a revolver spitting its menace behind. Fifty yards after him, his face as hard as Hume's, came MacKelvey, thundering along on his big rawboned sorrel, the sheriff whom men already criticised for not making an arrest.

Upon the ridge where the signal men were, the levelled glasses were dropped as another square of white ran up the dead pine to carry its word that the race was now a two man race. The fifty yards between MacKelvey and Shandon lengthened as Shandon was forced to put Little Saxon to his best. For MacKelvey was shooting as he rode and he was not shooting for fun; there was no man in the county who wasted less lead than its sheriff.

Suddenly the knoll was deserted. Even Willie Dart had scrambled to his horse, even he was chasing along wildly, oblivious of the steep pitch, of a more than likely fall. To Big Bill's voice had joined other voices, shouting to MacKelvey to give the man a chance. But MacKelvey did not listen.

They tried to push their horses between him and the man it was his sworn duty to bring into court. But MacKelvey kept to the fore, realising that they would try to do just this thing. He raised himself in his stirrups and as his hand went up he fired for the third time. The cry that burst out after the shot was full of anger, for every one had seen Red Shandon suddenly crumple in his saddle. But Little Saxon, running as he had never run before, toward the trees that were thickening in front of him, swerved off to the left and was lost to the eyes of the men sixty and seventy-five yards behind. There the hammering of his hoofs came back to them from the hard ground of another ridge.

"If you've killed him," grunted Big Bill into MacKelvey's ear as his horse came abreast of the sheriff's, "you might as well make a clean-up and get me, too."

But in a moment they again caught sight of Little Saxon through the trees, and they saw that Wayne Shandon was still in the saddle, sitting bolt upright, that he had shifted his reins to his right hand, that his left arm was swinging grotesquely at his side.

"I got him," grunted MacKelvey.

Already, with close to ten miles ahead of him, with Hume still a quarter of a mile to the fore, Wayne Shandon's face had turned white, his shirt was slowly turning red. The bullet from the heavy calibre revolver MacKelvey used had struck in the shoulder.

"He's swerved out of his course," was MacKelvey's next thought. "He is losing ground right now. I'll cut him off before he can get to the bridge."

In the moment that the impact of the bullet made Shandon crumple and reel and clutch at his saddle horn, he went dizzy, almost blind with the shock. In that moment Little Saxon feeling the reins drop upon his neck, turned out to the left, striking for an open clearing. He should have turned to the right as a thicket of chaparral lay in front now, and there was no turning back. So, when Shandon's right hand shut down tight upon the reins, gathering them up, there was but one thing to do, turn still further to the left, skirt the thicket, try to turn to the right again upon the further side. He was losing ground and he knew it; but it was early in the race.

"They've handicapped us, Little Saxon," he said through set teeth. "But we'll show them a race yet."

Ten miles of broken country, of hard riding, and the blood was hot on the man's side and back while every leap of his horse shot him through with pain. Ten miles and Endymion, Little Saxon's full brother, would be half a mile ahead before the thicket was circled.

"After all Hume wins!" cursed Big Bill.

"It ain't fair! It ain't fair!" Dart's tremulous voice was shrieking from far in the rear. "That big boob-"

"There's ten miles of it, Little Saxon," Shandon was muttering over and over. "And the race isn't run yet. You won't let Endymion beat you, Little Saxon! You won't let Sledge Hume-"

He cut sharply through the outer edge of the thicket and Little Saxon's lean body, leaping like a greyhound's, lifted and glinted over the ragged bushes. He swung to the right again, and saw MacKelvey, Big Bill riding at his side, cutting across a little hollow to intercept him. And again, with no alternative, he turned his horse out of the course, and kept on up the higher land to his left.

Now Hume was lost to him; MacKelvey and the others dropped out of sight; and he was riding his race alone. He knew that Little Saxon could stand up under all that a horse could endure; but he knew, too, that no horse that was ever foaled could keep up such a mad pace for ten miles, that the gallant brute's heart would burst with five miles of it. He tightened his reins a little, forcing the horse against its will to slacken speed.

Now he bent in the saddle, easing his body as well as he could, trying not to feel the pain that grew steadily in his shoulder. The lower branches of the trees through which he sped whipped at him and he did not feel them. Far ahead he saw two squares of white fluttering high against the blue of the sky, and he knew the message that they carried across the miles. He thought of how he and Wanda had signalled, how she would be at the Bar L-M with the rest, how she would understand what those two signals meant. For he had not told her, he had told no one but Dart who had brought Little Saxon to him last night, and who, later, had told the starters at the last moment. Shandon had realised that there would be danger in this mad act of his and that had she known beforehand Wanda would have been frightened.

Again, a mile further on, he tried to swing back into the cleared course that would bring him the shortest way to the bridge. Again he saw that MacKelvey had anticipated this, and was coming close to killing his own horse to cut him off. And, his eyes growing black, the fear of the end of the race came upon him. Had he done this wild thing for nothing then? Was it but to be proof to the men who called him fool that fool he was? He bent his head and loosened his reins.

He knew that, far ahead of him, Sledge Hume was riding the easier way, that he was working down from the more broken rangeland, that he was steadily nearing the bridge in the straightest line. He knew that MacKelvey had a rifle strapped to his saddle and that long before now the rifle would be in MacKelvey's hands. He knew that at the end of the race Wanda Leland, her heart beating madly for him, was waiting.

"Can't you do it, Little Saxon?" he whispered. "For her sake, can't you do it?"

Mile after mile slipped away behind him, the course was half run, and he had not come down into the road which led to the Bar L-M. He knew that he was losing at every jump the great hearted horse made under him; he knew that it was not Little Saxon's fault as he had never known until now what speed and strength lay in that wonderful body. Who's fault, then? Hume was beating him, Hume would be at the finish laughing, waiting for him to come in-

"You've got to do it, Little Saxon," he cried softly, his voice pleading. "Why, we can't let Hume-"

He broke off suddenly, his eyes filling with light. He had seen the way-and it was Wanda who had shown it to him.

"Steady, Saxon," he said, his own voice steady, confident, determined. "We'll do it, little horse. Let Hume beat us to the Bridge;we'll take the short cut !"

From the Bar L-M grounds a faint cry went up as scores of lifted field glasses made out the figure of one man riding strongly toward the bridge. It was Hume, Hume alone, riding as Hume rode, well and erect. There was the hammer of Endymion's hoofs as they rattled against the heavy planking, and then-

"Look! Look! Oh, my God! Look!"

It was a woman's voice, a hysterical little woman from Reno, crying out, terror-stricken. Her arm had shot out; her finger was pointing toward the chasm of the river.

Then the shout that swept up about the Bar L-M was no longer faint. The voices of women were drowned in the deep roar of men's shouts. Wanda, her hands convulsively going to her breast, her face as white as death, moved her lips, making no sound. But her soul spoke and prayed, prayed to God not to let her mad lover do this mad thing. What was a race, what was defeat!

Wayne Shandon, riding as straight as Hume now, his hair flashing its red at them, his face strangely white,-some one cried that he was afraid,-had come to the short cut. His eyes leaving the way in front of him for a swift second saw the form of a girl standing out from the crowd and failed to see the crowd that was watching him, for the instant forgetful of Sledge Hume riding on his spurs, sweeping on across the bridge that rocked under him. Then Shandon's eyes came back to the black gulf where a white snowshoe rabbit had found death, which a white maiden had leaped for his sake.

"We can do it, Little Saxon," he said gently. "We can do it for Wanda, can't we? She'd hate to see us beaten by Hume. For Wanda, Little Saxon. Now!"

The roar of the water smote upon Little Saxon's ears, the deep chasm seemed a live and evil thing snapping at him. But he rushed on toward it, he felt his master's hand, he heard his master talking to him, and he had learned to love and trust his master. He swept on, down the slope, gathering speed at each great bounding leap, racing as few have seen a horse run, sensing the end of the race, sniffing victory with quivering flaring nostrils. He felt the sudden slackening of his reins as Shandon whispered, "Now!"; he knew that his master had put his life into his horse's keeping; knew that he was loved and trusted in this final moment even as he gave his own love and trust; and gathering the great, iron muscles of his great iron body, he leaped.

He leaped, flinging his body recklessly. Upon his back Wayne Shandon, sitting very still and tense and erect, his eyes upon the form of a girl, his life in Little Saxon's keeping, had essayed the thing that no one had expected even Red Reckless to do. The white froth of the water flashed under them, the jagged rocks menaced, the boom of the river deafened them. As he had leaped before, that first day when Shandon and Big Bill had come upon him, Little Saxon leaped now. And as he landed his hind feet sent a rattle of stones down into the hungering gulf below.

There had been a silence as of death. Now there was a shout that drowned the roar of the river robbed of its prey. Men yelled and threw their arms up and yelled again.

On came Endymion carrying Sledge Hume who had at last understood and who now was riding with bloody spurs and a quirt that cut in swift vicious blows at his horse's sweating hide.

On came Little Saxon, snorting his defiance to his brother, Red Reckless sitting straight in the saddle, his spurs clean.

BOOK: The Short Cut
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