E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE SHORT CUT
Author of "Under Handicap," "The Outlaw"
With Illustrations by Frank Tenney Johnson
[Frontispiece: Surely the rider was just what the owner of the voice, half laughing, half crooning, tenderly lilting, must be.]
New York Dodd, Mead and Company 1916 Copyright, 1916 by Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc.
GENERAL C. F. McGLASHAN
I THE TRAGEDY II THE SHADOW III SUSPICION IV THE WHITE HUNTRESS V THE HOME COMING OF RED RECKLESS VI THE PROMISE OF LITTLE SAXON VII THE GLADNESS THAT SINGS VIII "BLUFF, AND THE GAMBLER WINS!" IX THE CONTEMPT OF SLEDGE HUME X SHANDON'S GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY XI WANDA'S DISCOVERY XII THE TALES OF MR. WILLIE DART XIII SLEDGE HUME MAKES A CALL AND LAYS A WAGER XIV IN WANDA'S CAVE XV WILLIE DART PICKS A LOCK XVI AND SOLVES A FASCINATING MYSTERY XVII "WHERE'S THAT TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND?" XVIII THE TRUTH XIX SHANDON TAKES HIS STAND XX HUME PLAYS A TRUMP XXI THE SHORT CUT XXII THE FUGITIVE XXIII HELGA STRAWN PLAYS THE GAME XXIV UNDER THE SURFACE XXV RED RECKLESS ON LITTLE SAXON XXVI THE LAUGHTER OF HELGA STRAWN XXVII HUME RIDES THE ONE OPEN TRAIL XXVIII "IT IS HOME!"
Surely the rider was just what the owner of the voice, half laughing, half crooning, tenderly lilting, must be.
"I want just to smoke and watch you and listen while you talk."
She made herself as comfortable as she could, drew her camera from its case, and waited a patient quarter of an hour.
"I call upon you to give yourself up!" he shouted. "Stop, Red, or I shoot this time!"
THE SHORT CUT
Here was a small stream of water, bright, clear and cool, running its merry way among the tall pines, hurrying to the dense shade of the lower valley. The grass on its banks stood tall, lush and faintly odorous, fresh with the newly come springtime, delicately scented with the thickly strewn field flowers. The sunlight lay bright and warm over all; the sky was blue with a depth of colour intensified by the few great white clouds drifting lazily across it.
No moving thing within all the wide rolling landscape save the sun-flecked water, the softly stirring grass and rustling forests, the almost motionless white clouds. For two miles the hills billowed away gently to the northward, where at last they were swept up into the thickly timbered, crag-crested mountains. For twice two miles toward the west one might guess the course of the stream before here, too, the mountains shut in, leaving only Echo Canon's narrow gap for the cool water to slip through. To the south and to the east ridges and hollows and mountains, and beyond a few fast melting patches of last winter's snow clinging to the lofty summits, looking like fragments broken away from the big white clouds and resting for a moment on the line where land and sky met.
The stillness was too perfect to remain long unbroken. From a trail leading down into the valley from the east a shepherd dog, running eagerly, broke through the waving grass, paused a second looking back expectantly, sniffed and ran on. Then a sound from over the ridge through the trees, the sound of singing, a young voice lilting wordlessly in enraptured gladness that life was so bright this morning. And presently a horse, a dark bay saddle pony moving as lazily as the clouds above, brought its rider down to the stream.
Surely the rider was just what the owner of the voice, half laughing, half crooning, tenderly lilting, must be. It seemed that only since the dawn of today had she become a woman having been a child until the dusk of yesterday. The wide grey eyes, looking out upon a gentle aspect of life, were inclined to be merry and musing at the same time, soft with maidenhood's day dreaming, tender with pleasant thoughts. A child of the outdoors, her skin sun-tinged to a warm golden brown, her hair sunburnt where it slipped out of the shadow of her big hat, her lips red with young health, her slender body in its easy, confident carriage showing how the muscles under the soft skin were strong and capable.
At her saddle horn, in its case, was a camera; snapped to her belt and resting against her left hip, a pair of field glasses.
The horse played at drinking, pretending a thirst which it did not feel, and began to paw the clear water into muddiness. The dog ran on, turned again, barked an invitation to its mistress to join in the search for adventures, and plunged into the tall grass.
The girl's song died away, her lips stilled by the hush of the coming noonday. For a moment she was very silent, so motionless that she seemed scarcely to breathe.
"Life is good here," she mused, her eyes wandering across the valley to the wall of the mountains shutting out the world of cities. "It is like the air, sweet and clean and wholesome! Life!" she whispered, as though in reality she had been born just this dawn to the awe of it, the wonder of it, "I love Life!"
She breathed deeply, her breast rising high to the warm, scented air drawn slowly through parted lips as though she would drink of the rare wine of the springtime.
The dog had found something in the deep grass which sent it scampering back across the water and almost under the horse's legs, snarling.
"What is it, Shep?" laughed the girl. "What have you found that is so dreadful?"
But Shep was not to be laughed out of his growls and whines. Presently he ran back toward the place where he had made his headlong crossing, stopped abruptly, broke into a quick series of short, sharp barks, and again turning fled to the horse and rider as though for protection, whining his fear.
"Is it really something, Shep?" asked the girl, puzzled a little. She leaned forward in the saddle, patting her mare's warm neck. "I think he's just an old humbug as usual, Gypsy," she smiled indulgently. "But shall we go over and see?"
Gypsy splashed noisily across the stream, the dog still growling and slinking close to the horse's heels. The girl saw where Shep had parted the grass with his inquisitive nose, leaving a plain trail. And not ten steps from the edge of the water she came upon the thing that Shep had found.
The mare's nostrils suddenly quivered; she trembled a moment, and then with a snort of fear whirled and plunged back toward the creek. But the girl had seen. The colour ran out of her face, the musing peace fled from her eyes and a swift horror leaped out upon her. In one flash the soft calm of the morning had become a mockery, its promise a lie. Here, into the wonder of Life, Death had come.
She had had but an uncertain glance at the thing lying huddled in the tall grass, but her instinct like Shep's and Gypsy's understood. And for a blind, terror-stricken moment, she felt that she must yield as they yielded to the fear within her, to the primitive urge to flee from Death; that she could not draw near the spot where a man had died, where even now the body lay cold in the sunshine.
Her hands were shaking pitifully when at last she tied Gypsy to the lower limb of an oak beside the creek. As she went slowly back along the little trail the dog had made she told herself that the man was not dead, that he was sick or hurt . . . and though she had never looked upon Death before this morning when it seemed to her that she had looked upon Life for the first time, she knew what that grotesque horror meant, she knew why the man lay, as he did, face down and still.
At last she stood over the body, her swift eyes informing her reluctant consciousness of a host of details. She saw that the grass around was beaten down in a rude circle, heard the whining of the dog at her heels, noticed that the man lay on his right side, his head twisted so that his cheek touched his shoulder, the face hidden, one arm crumpled under him, one outflung and grasping a handful of up-rooted grass with set rigid fingers.
A sickness, a faintness, and with it an almost uncontrollable desire to run madly from this place, this thing, swept over her. But she drew closer, kneeling quickly, and put her warm hand upon the hand that clutched the wisp of grass so rigidly. It was cold, so cold that she drew back suddenly, shuddering.
Not even now did she know who the man was. It had not yet entered her mind that she could know him. She rose to her feet, and walking softly as though her footfall in the grass might waken some one sleeping, she moved about the still figure, to the other side, so that she might see the face. Then she cried out softly, piteously, and Shep ceased his whining and came to her around the body, rubbing against her skirts.
"Arthur!" She came closer, knelt again and put her hands gently upon the short-cropped, curling hair. "Oh, Arthur! Is it you?" Only now did she know how this man with the young, frank face had died. Now she saw blood smeared on the white forehead, a bullet wound torn in the temple. She sprang to her feet, staring with wide eyes at the little hole through which the man's soul had fled. She turned hastily toward her horse, came back, placed her straw hat tenderly over the short curling hair, and ran to Gypsy.
She was vaguely conscious that her brain was acting as it had never acted before, that her excited nerves were filling her mind with a mass of sensations and fragmentary thoughts strangely clearcut and definite. Like some wonderfully constructed camera her faculties, in an instant no longer than the time required for the clicking of the shutter, photographed a hawk circling high up in the sky, a waving branch, with no less truth and vividness than the body sprawling there in the grass. Emotions, scents, sounds, objects blended into a strange mental snap-shot, no one detail less clear than another.
Jerking the mare's tie rope free from the oak, she flung herself into the saddle, and turned back toward the trail that led across the creek and over the ridge. But Shep had found something else in the grass half a dozen steps beyond the dead man, something that he sniffed at and nosed and that excited him. Making a little detour, she rode back to the spot where the dog, barking now, was waiting for her.
As she leaned forward looking down upon this second thing the shepherd dog had found, she clutched suddenly at the horn of her saddle as though all her strength had dribbled out of her, and she were going to fall. The keen nostrils of the animal had led him to this object with its sinister connection with the tragedy and he had pawed at it, dragging it toward him and free of the green tangle into which it had fallen or been flung.
It was a revolver, thirty-eight calibre, unlike the weapons one might expect to find here in the range country or about the sawmills further back . . . and the girl recognised it. The deadly viciousness of the firearm was disguised by the pearl grip and silver chasings until it had seemed a toy. But here was Arthur Shandon dead, with a bullet in his brain, and here almost at his side was a revolver she knew so well. . . .
She covered her face with her hands and shook like one of the pine needles above her head caught in a quick breath of air. Shep looked up at her with his sharp, eager bark and then the gladness of discovery in his eyes changed suddenly into wistful wonder. Gypsy, with tossing head and jingling bridle, turned toward the crossing, quickening her stride, ready to break into a trot.
At last the girl jerked her hands away from a face that was white and miserable, and with angry spur and rein brought the mare back to the spot where the revolver lay. Slipping down, she hesitated a moment, glancing swiftly about as though afraid some one might see her, even with a look that was almost suspicious at the quiet body of Arthur Shandon, and stooping suddenly swept up the thing that had been a toy yesterday and was so hideously tragic to-day. It was with a great effort of her will that she compelled her fingers to touch it, forced them to close upon it and take it up. Then with a little cry into which loathing and dread merged, she cast it from her, flinging it far down stream so that it fell into a black pool below a tiny, frothing waterfall.
"I can't believe it. I won't believe it!" she murmured in a voice that shook even as her hands were shaking. "It is too terrible!"
No longer could she look at the huddled form in the grass, the young, frank face that was so still and white and cold in the sunshine. Throwing herself into the saddle, she swung Gypsy's head about toward the trail, as though she were fleeing from a fearful pursuing menace. Shep, who had run, barking, to retrieve his lost discovery from the black pool under the waterfall, snapped his disappointment from the bank and then splashed through the creek after his mistress.
Two hundred yards the girl raced along the up-trail, her mare running, her dog struggling hard to keep up. Then with a new, sudden fear she jerked her pony to a standstill.
"I . . . I can't leave it there," her white lips were whispering. "They will find it, and then . . . Oh, my God!"
And now her brain had ceased to act like a strangely magical camera; now sights and sounds and faint odours about her were all unnoticed. Her eyes, wide and staring at the winding trail before her, did not see the broad trees or the flower sprinkled grass or the blossoming manzanita bushes. They gazed through these things which they did not see, and instead saw what might lie in the future, what fate the grim gods of destiny might mete out . . . to one man . . . if the revolver below the waterfall were found!
Her hesitation was brief; the horror of what might lurk in the future was greater than the horror of what lay back there behind her. Again she urged her puzzled horse back to the stream, flinging herself down just at the edge of the pool. Far down at the bottom upon the white sand, wedged between two white stones, the revolver lay plainly visible. The noonday sun rested upon the deep water here and its secret was no secret at all. She was glad that she had come back.
Snatching up the dead limb of a shrub lying close at hand, with little difficulty or waste of time, she dragged the weapon toward her until she could thrust her arm, elbow deep into the water, and secure it.
She shuddered as when she had first forced her hand to touch it. But with quick, steady fingers she dried it against her skirt and thrust it into the only place where she could be sure of safety, where its voice would be silenced to all except her own heart, deep into the bosom of her waist. And again she was on Gypsy's back, again fleeing along the up-trail.
As she rode, as the rush of air whipped in her face and the leaping body of the mare under her gave her muscles something to do, the blood flamed again into her cheeks; courage rushed back into a heart that was naturally unafraid.
"I have not been loyal," she whispered over and over to herself accusingly. "I have not been a true friend. I have suspected and I know, oh, I know so well, that it can't be! He wouldn't do a thing like that, he couldn't!"
She topped the ridge, sped on for half a mile upon its crest, racing straight toward the east, dropped down into another valley ten times bigger than the one she had just quitted, and still following the trail headed southward again. Here there were fewer trees, a sprinkling of pine and fir, and wider open spaces. Another stream, even smaller than Echo Creek, watered the valley. She rode through a small herd of saddle horses that flashed away before her swift approach, their manes and tails flying, and scarcely realised that she had disturbed them. Off to her left, at the upper end of the valley where were a number of grazing cattle, she thought she could distinguish the figures of a couple of her father's cowboys riding herd. But she did not turn to them.
Gypsy, warming to the race, carried her mistress valiantly the half a dozen miles from the ridge she had crossed to the knoll crowned with great boled, sky seeking cedars where her father's ranch house stood. Half a mile away the girl made out the wide verandahs, the long flight of steps, the hammock where she had read and dozed last night, yes, and dreamed the tender, half wistful, yet rose tinted dreams of maidenhood. She saw, too, the stables at the base of the knoll, to the northward, where one of the boys, Charlie or Jim, was harnessing the greys, preparatory to hitching them to the big wagon. The thought flashed through her mind that he counted upon going out for a load of wood, and that he would be called upon first to bring in another burden that he would never forget.
Her eyes went back to the house. There was some one sitting in a rocker in the shade near the front door. It was her mother. This news would be a bitter, bitter shock to the tender-hearted woman who had called Arthur Shandon one of her "boys."
The girl drew nearer, with no tightening of reins upon Gypsy's headlong speed. Another glimpse through the cedars showed her that there was some one with her mother, a man, broad and heavy shouldered. He turned, hearing the pound of the flying hoofs through the still air as she came on. It was her father. She could see the massive, calm face, the white hair and white square beard.
She was barely five hundred yards from the foot of the knoll when she saw that her father and mother were not alone. The third figure had been concealed from her until now by the great post standing at the top of the steps. But now the man sitting there rose to his feet and turned to look in the direction her parents were looking. A sudden choking came into the girl's throat, a quick rush of tears into her dry eyes. She drew her reins tight, bringing her pony down into a trot, then to a walk. She could not rush on like this, carrying a message of grief and terror; must she hasten so eagerly to speak the word that was going to make life so different to this man?
"Oh, how can I tell him?" she was moaning. "The gladdest, gayest, happiest boy of a man that ever lived! Will he ever be glad again?"
Her mother had waved to her, her father was smiling, proud of her as he always was when he saw how she rode. And the other man who had leaped to his feet was running down the steps, coming to meet her, coming to meet the news she brought.
The girl drooped her head a little, while Gypsy walked very slowly. Then she looked up again, swiftly, saw that the man was coming on to meet her, saw the great, tall, gaunt form, marked the free swinging carriage which she had noted so many times before, noticed the way he carried his head, well back, saw the sunlight splashing like fire in the red, red hair that in some fashion seemed to proclaim red blood and recklessness. A young man he was with mighty hands and iron body, with life leaping high in his laughing eyes, a man who might have been some pagan god of youth and joy and heedlessness.
His big boots brought him on swiftly until he came to her horse and she stopped, her eyes dropping before his. He twined his fingers in Gypsy's mane and looked up into her face, he laughing softly.
"So you've ridden back to us, at last." His voice was in tune with the rest of him, suggesting the wildness and recklessness that were part of the man's nature. He ran on, half bantering, half softly wondering at the loveliness of her. "Are you pagan nymph or Christian maiden, Wanda?" he asked a little seriously, as nearly serious, one might have said, as it was this man's nature to be.
She raised her lowered eyes, looking at him searchingly. Then he saw the tears that at last were spilling over, the face from which the colour was going again, the traces of horror of that thing which lay far back there under the pines.
"Wanda!" he cried sharply. "You . . . There's something the matter! I've been running on like an inspired idiot and . . . What is it, Wanda?"
"Oh," she said desperately, "it is terrible! I can't . . ." She choked over her words. But they were burning the soul within her, and she ran on hastily. "I found him back there by Echo Creek crossing. He . . . he is dead."
"Dead?" repeated the man. "Dead? Who, Wanda?"
"Arthur!" she whispered.
"Arthur, dead?" he muttered, his voice oddly low and quiet. "Arthur, dead? I don't understand."
"He is dead," she said again heavily. "Some one shot him."
She broke off and began to sob. He looked first at her, then along the trail she had ridden, and finally, taking his hand from her horse's mane he turned abruptly and strode off toward the house. He mounted the steps swiftly, passed her father and mother without a word in answer to the questioning faces they turned toward him, entered the door and returned almost immediately, carrying his hat in his hand. As he came down the steps, he put on his hat and bent his head a little so that she could not see his face. He passed her without a sign and went down to the stable. Then she rode up to the house and slipped from her saddle at the foot of the steps. Her father and mother hurried to meet her.
"It is Arthur. It is Wayne's brother," cried Wanda brokenly from her mother's arms. "He is dead!"
She told them briefly, hurriedly. Her father, his eyes strangely hard and inscrutable swore softly and turning without a word to either of the women went back to the house as Wayne had done, got his hat and hurried to the stable. His voice, hard and expressionless like his eyes, floated up to them as he gave his brief orders to Jim to drive straight back to the spot Wanda had described. The girl saw him enter the stable and in a little while come out, riding a saddled horse. Already Wayne Shandon had ridden off along the trail, travelling with a fury of speed that took no heed of the miles ahead of him.
Mother and daughter turned and went slowly up the steps, their arms about each other, their cheeks wet.
"Who killed him, mamma?" whispered the girl, her moist eyes lifted. "Who could have killed him?"
The silent tale that a pearl handled revolver had told her was a lie, a hideous lie. She did not believe it, she was never going to believe it. For an instant there had been a horrible suspicion in her breast, then her loyalty had risen and crushed it and killed it and cast it out. But now she sought some new explanation to take its place, sought it with intense eagerness.
"Who killed him?" Mother's and daughter's eyes met furtively for a quick second. And then the mother's answer was no answer at all, but a broken, tremulous prayer: "Dear God, may they never know who did this thing!"
They did not look at each other again as they crossed the length of the veranda, on the north exposure of the great square house and turned into the spacious living room.
"I am going to my room, mamma," said the girl faintly. "I want to be alone just a little."
She knew that her mother was watching her as she passed through the living room and out through the double doors to the veranda at the east. But she did not turn. She did not ask what her mother had meant, she did not wish to know. She wanted just now more than anything in the world, to be alone in her own room, to take from her bosom the thing which she felt every one would know she had there, to hide it where it would be safe.
To the east of the house in a little sheltered hollow her father, twenty years ago, had planted an orchard. She could see the white and delicate pink of the blossoms, could catch the hint of perfume that a little frolicking breeze brought to her.
She heard voices out there and saw two men coming toward the house. There came to her ears, too, the sound of cool, contemptuous laughter. She knew who it was insolently jeering at the other, knew before she saw them that it was the big, splendidly big fellow, as tall as Red Reckless and heavier, who was known to her only as "Sledge" Hume. She had heard her father say last night that both Hume and Arthur Shandon were coming to-day upon some matter of business in which the three men were interested.
"You're a little fool, anyway, Conway," the deep voice said with that frank impudence which was a part of Hume.
Garth Conway, not a small man by two inches or fifty pounds, although he appeared so beside his companion, made a reply which Wanda did not hear in full, but which reached her sufficiently to tell her that the two men were talking about some trifling matter of range management and that his theory had provoked Sledge Hume's blunt comment. The two men came on, Hume striding a couple of paces in front of Conway, until they caught sight of her. Conway lifted his hat, his sullen eyes brightening. Hume, staring at her with the keen eye of appraisal, did not trouble himself to touch his hat and gave her no greeting beyond one of his curt nods.
"They have not heard," Wanda thought with a little thrill of pity for Garth Conway who was so soon to learn of the death of the man who had been more like a brother than cousin to him. "Mamma will tell them."
She hurried down the veranda to her room which was at the far end, at the southeast corner of the house. But she paused at the door as she heard her mother's voice, shaken and tearful, and the reply that one of the men made.
It was Garth Conway. As though the utterance were drawn from him by the shock of the surprise, jerked from him involuntarily, he cried:
"Dead? Murdered? My God! And he and Wayne quarrelled. . . ."
"Go on!" It was Sledge Hume's heavy, colourless voice. "Just because two men quarrel it doesn't mean that one kills the other, does it?"
"Garth!" cried Mrs. Leland. "You mustn't . . ."
"I didn't say that," cried Conway. "I didn't mean . . ."
Wanda waited to hear no more. She hurried into her room, to stand there trembling behind the closed door, her face as white as that other face she had looked upon earlier in the day.
"He didn't do it!" she whispered. "He didn't. I know he didn't."
But the thing which she carried in her bosom seemed to be demanding rudely: "Must you shut your eyes to believe with your heart?" And if other eyes than her own saw it?
There was her closet, the open door showing the party dresses she had brought back from school. She shook her head. Her room was so plainly furnished with just a little dressing table, her bed, a chair, a stand with some wild flowers on it, a smaller table with half a dozen books scattered about. Then her eyes rested on the big trunk which had not yet been carried down into the basement.
Running to it she flung up the lid and jerked out the tray. The bottom was half filled with odds and ends, stockings, slippers, linen. She took the revolver from her bosom, dropped it to the bottom of the trunk, covered it hastily with loose clothing, replaced the tray and closed the lid. But she could not feel that her secret was safe until she had found the key on her dressing table. The lock was troublesome, it was always troublesome. She was down on her knees, had just heard the little click which told her that the lock was fast, and was trying to work the key out again when the door opened softly and her mother came in.
For a moment the two women, motionless, looked at each other fixedly. Then Wanda rose slowly to her feet, a little red flush colouring her brow, a fear which she knew absurd and yet which she could not crush down, rising into her fluttering breast. Then Mrs. Leland closed the door behind her, and stood with her back to it.
"Will you tell me about it, Wanda, dear?"
Her voice was troubled; her frank eyes, so like her daughter's, were at once sad and anxious.
"It is too horrible, mamma." Wanda closed her eyes tightly for a moment, trying to shut out the picture which burned so in her brain. Every little detail stood out in her memory clear cut and vivid, the grass trampled into a rude circle, the hand that clung in death to what it had last grasped in life, the grotesquely crumpled, huddled body.
"Tell me about it, Wanda." Her mother was looking into the frankly distressed face, curiously. Wanda had again the uneasy idea that her mother was wondering about the trunk which she had just locked, and again a quick fear leaped up within her that she might guess the secret it concealed.
"How did you happen to find him?"
"Shep was with me, running ahead. Shep found him."
"And some one had killed him?"
Wanda nodded, her lips tight pressed together, her hands twisting about each other in her lap. For a moment there was silence in the little room.
"Wanda, look at me, dear."
Her eyes turned, wondering, from the window and the orchard beyond, and went swiftly to her mother. The words were very clearly a command now. The voice was lowered a little but had grown more insistent. And it seemed to her that Mrs. Leland's eyes had in them now something more than sadness and anxiety, that they were suspicious. Again Wanda felt the hot blood in her temples.
"What is it, mamma?"
"Who killed Arthur? Do you know?"
"Mamma!" she cried, startled. "Why do you ask that? What do you mean?"
"I want to know, dear. Do you know who killed him?"
"No." It was plain that she was troubled, it was equally as plain that she spoke truthfully. "What makes you think . . . Why do you ask that?"
"I thought," replied Mrs. Leland, a little uneasily, "that you might have seen something, found something. . . ."
"No, no!" cried the girl impulsively. "I know what you mean. I have no vaguest idea who could have done it!"
The older woman came across the room and sat down at her daughter's side, putting her arm about the slender form.
"Wanda, dear," she said softly. "I am going to tell you something which you don't know yet. Wayne quarrelled with Arthur last night!"
The girl's body stiffened convulsively. She wanted to spring up and run out of the house to some hiding place in the old orchard and be alone. But she answered, her eyes clear and truthful.
"I'm sorry. Oh, so sorry! Poor Wayne. That will make it so much harder for him."
"Yes. It is going to make it hard for him, Wanda. Harder than you have imagined." She paused as if considering the advisability of what she had started to say, and then ended simply, hopelessly, "They are going to think that Wayne shot him!"
"They mustn't!" cried Wanda hotly. "They haven't the right. It would be thinking a lie, a wicked, hideous lie!"
Mrs. Leland shook her head sadly.
"Wanda," she went on quietly, "the first thing Garth said when I told him was that Wayne had quarrelled with Arthur last night. I don't mind so much what Garth says and does, but . . . I think that Martin is going to suspect Wayne of this, if he doesn't already suspect him."
"But, surely father isn't so unjust, just because he doesn't like Wayne . . ."
"If it were nothing more than just not liking him! Your father isn't capable of a feeling that is merely negative about people, child. He hated the boys' father; Wayne I think he hates as bitterly."
"But why, mamma? Surely there is no reason . . ."
"Men, strong men like your father, don't always wait for reasons, Wanda," said Mrs. Leland gently. "He has never forgotten that had circumstances been a very, very little different I might have married the other Wayne Shandon. When we were married and the other Wayne Shandon bought land so close to us your father was the angriest man I ever saw. That was before your time, dear. He rode across the valley the next day; he has never told me what happened but his face was still white when he came home. There are only a few things which can stir Martin into a passion like that."
"But, surely, mamma . . ."
"When the other Wayne Shandon married and the boys were born it made no difference with Martin. When the other Wayne Shandon died and his wife died and the boys were left the hatred in your father's breast did not die with them. He transferred it to Arthur and the Wayne you know. Toward Wayne especially it has grown strong and bitter."
"But why to him more than to Arthur?"
"Because, my dear, Wayne is his father over and over again! Because he has the same red hair and the same eyes with the same way of laughing. Because his voice is the same, his carriage is the same, his mad, reckless heart the same. Because everytime that Martin sees the Wayne Shandon that you know he sees the old Wayne Shandon I knew . . . and he hated."
"But it can't be that if a man hates another, and he dies, the man will go on hating his son just for being his son! Father is not so unjust as that, mamma! He will not suspect Wayne of murder, of murdering his own brother, just because of his father!"
Mrs. Leland's hands were interlocked tensely. "There are other reasons, there will be other things remembered about the boy which will make suspicion so easy."
"I know what you mean," the girl cried, breathing deeply. "He is reckless, he is wild, I know. He gambles, he has quarrels with many men. He does things that we would not do, but then we are women! He does things that father would not do, but then father is not young any longer! He is wild because his nature is inherited from his father; it's in his blood, he's young and he has grown up with the far out places. But he is not bad! He is not the kind of man to do a thing like this. What do men call him, men who know him and what he is? They don't call him Coward, they don't call him Cheat, they don't call him mean or dishonest or ungenerous! They call him Reckless, Red Reckless, and they love him! Oh, mamma, can't you see that it is impossible . . ."
Mrs. Leland rose to her feet, her face grown suddenly pinched and white.
"I don't know," she said with a sigh.
"You believe it too!" cried the girl. "You think that Wayne Shandon killed his own brother!"
A delicate flush stained her mother's cheeks.
"Wanda, child, you mustn't say that," she almost whispered. "I don't believe it. I won't believe it. And if I did . . . Wanda, I'd remember the man his father was, the gentleman, the true-hearted gentleman, and I should say that I did not believe."
Then, turning quickly so that her wondering daughter could not see the eyes that were blurred with a mist of tears, she left the room.
When she had gone Wanda snatched up the trunk key from her table and thrust it quickly into her bosom. Then she sat down again on the edge of her bed and stared out toward the orchard where the sunlight lay bright and warm upon the apple blossoms . . . and saw only the quiet body by Echo Creek, that and the face of the man people called Red Reckless.
Why had her mother come to her in such a way? Why had she been so quick to see what people would say? Did she believe that Wayne Shandon had killed Arthur; was she afraid that Wanda might have found something that would incriminate him; and did she want to warn her of what the inevitable result of such a disclosure would be?
And she had found something! She had known from the first sight of it, half hidden by Shep's eager pays, that it was Wayne Shandon's. He had shown it to her only last week.
"I am going to teach you to shoot as I shoot," he had laughed, bringing the revolver out of his pocket. "Then I am going to give it to you. And then you are going to make me a pretty bow and give me a pretty smile and say, 'Thank you, Red,' as you did when I chastised your first suitor! Remember, Wanda?"
"Only I don't call you 'Red' any more," she had laughed back at him. "We're grown up now, you know, and Wayne is much more dignified and . . . and respectful."
"And you can handle your own suitors now," he had retorted. "More artistically and with equal finality!"
Only a week ago out there in the orchard where now the sunlight lay in golden splashes over the fruit trees, she and Red Reckless had bantered each other as they strolled toward the house where Arthur was sitting on the veranda with her mother, watching them. It was a sparkling morning like to-day's, and they had spoken of the old school days before Mr. Shandon sent his two sons to the East to school, of the time when she was eight and he was fifteen and he had "licked" a boy whom she did not like but who was stubborn in vowing that the little girl should eat a red cheeked apple he had brought her. A week ago, and now Arthur Shandon was dead and men were ready to believe that Wayne Shandon had killed him.
She sat very still, while her mind wandered in many directions. The old days rose up vividly bringing back the young faces of Arthur and Wayne and Garth Conway,—they had all played Prisoner's Base and Anti-over at the little white school house down in the valley. She remembered the day when a letter came from Mr. Shandon summoning Arthur and Wayne and Garth to the East, and how merry the boys had been over it. She missed them dreadfully after they went away until vacation came and her own father had taken her with him on a tour of inspection to his four other ranches, up and down the State. For three years she did not see the three boys, their letters had ceased, and she was well on the way to forget her playfellows. And then, when she was twelve and Wayne Shandon nineteen, he had come back.
He had run away. He had quarrelled with his father, and Arthur had tried to show him that he was unreasonable. Then the boy's hot temper had flashed out at his brother and finally at Garth Conway who had long been accustomed to thinking as Arthur Shandon thought. So the youth, in whom love of adventure and hatred of restraint were already marked characteristics, had sold his books, the saddle pony which his father's generosity had given him, his guns and fishing tackle, in fact everything which he might sell even to his spare clothing, had caught a night train and come West again.
Wanda's mother had tried to reason with the boy when he came to them, laughing at the trick he had played his father, full of mockery of the hidebound ways of cities, and had wanted to send him back to Mr. Shandon. She had cried a little over him and kissed him and talked gently with him as was her motherly way. But Wanda's father berated him severely and sternly and Wayne flushed and bit his lip and then went away from them as he had gone away from the East.
More years, happy years for Wanda Leland, sped by and she did not see the boy. Both Arthur and Garth came in the long summer vacations to Mr. Shandon's range and were frequent visitors at the Echo Creek place. Word came now and then of Wayne Shandon, sometimes by infrequent and unsatisfactory short letters from him, more often in elaborately embroidered rumour from men making long trips across the country. He had gone to work for a cattle outfit, taking a dollar a day and doing an ordinary cowboy's work. Even before he was twenty-one, men called him Red Reckless. He had learned to gamble, and to gamble for big stakes. He played poker; he took his chance with the "bank"; but he loved the dice. They were quicker; a man could "make or break" at one throw. It was his way to hazard everything on a throw, to laugh if he won, to laugh if he lost.
Rumour said that he had been shot by a notorious gambler, Dash Dulac; and had come near dying; that he had shot another man up at Spanish Dry Diggings where he had rushed with a frantic flood of men on news of a golden strike; that he had been sucked away with another flux of gold seekers to the Yukon country where he had lived lawlessly with his lawless companions; that he had drifted back to the lumber camps of the mountains; that at last he had returned to the cattle country.
Wanda had gone away to school in the East, spending only her summers upon the Echo Creek ranch. She had seen very little of Wayne Shandon. When Mr. Shandon died, leaving his wide reaching cattle range to his elder son, Arthur had come promptly to take charge of the Bar L-M Outfit, and Garth Conway had come with him as foreman and general manager under him. Arthur, whose affection for his stormy souled brother had lasted strong through the years, had at last prevailed upon Wayne to "come home" and to go to work for him. That had been a year ago.
A light knock at her door brought back her wandering thoughts to to-day, to Arthur Shandon, to the suspicion which was so quickly lifting its venomous head. She rose from the bed, pushed back the hair which had fallen unnoticed into confusion about her cheeks, and said softly,
"Come in, mamma."
"We were just going to have lunch when you came, Wanda," her mother said quietly. "You must come and have a cup of tea."
"Mamma! I can't."
"But you can!" Her mother smiled a little at her and patted the restless hand she took in her own. "You had a very early breakfast and you must have a cup of tea."
Together they went back to the dining room.
"Where are Garth and Mr. Hume?" asked Wanda.
"They have gone . . . with the others, dear," Mrs. Leland told her.
The two women sat down in silence. Wanda forced herself to drink half of her tea and pushed the cup away from her. She got swiftly to her feet and leaving the room, went out upon the north veranda, where she saw Julia, the cook, standing at the window, her red hands upon her broad hips, her eyes even redder than her hands. On the window sill were half a dozen fresh, hot pies which Julia had made for "the boys" . . .
Wanda bit her lips and her eyes went whither her mother's had gone, down the trail along which the men had ridden to the creek.
It seemed a very long time before she saw them. The wagon, with Jim driving slowly and carefully, climbed over a ridge and wound its way down into the valley. Her father, Garth, and Sledge Hume, were riding behind it, abreast and close together. Wayne Shandon farther back was riding alone, his head down, his hat drawn low over his brows.
At last she could see the faces shaded by the wide brimmed hats. They were strangely alike in their hard, set expression, the gravity which told little. These were not, any of them, men given to wearing their deeper emotions on their sleeves. Her eyes ran to Wayne Shandon's face first. It was white, the mouth was sterner than she had ever thought Red Reckless' laughing mouth could be, the eyes were hard and inscrutable.
From him she looked anxiously at her father, then at Sledge Hume, then at Garth Conway. And these faces, stern like Wayne's, sent a little shiver of fear through her.
Her mother went out to meet the wagon, crying quietly. Wanda felt the tears rush with a hotness like fire into her own eyes, and then she turned and hurrying out of sight of the slow procession ran down to the orchard. She was lying there, face down, sobbing like a child, when she felt a shadow over her, heard a man's spurs jingle, and knew who it was that had come out to her.
She looked up at him, wondering.
"Wanda," he said very quietly, his voice strangely steady, "it was good of you to give him your hat. If I were dead and you did a thing like that for me I think I should come back to life to kiss your dear hands."
This was so like him! Oh, just the thing Red Reckless would do! The little thoughtful act of hers had stirred him more deeply than most men are moved even by big things; and the impulse had come to him to go straight to her and thank her. And he was a man who obeyed impulses.
The other men had entered the house for their lunch. It seemed horrible to her that people should be able to eat at a time like this. Wayne Shandon spoke to her again.
"Your father is going to let Jim go with me," he said. "We are going to El Toyon. Then I am going to take him back East."
"East!" she exclaimed,
"Yes. I have a fancy he'd like to be buried close to dad."
"You are coming back soon?"
"Immediately. Within ten days, I think. Good-bye, Wanda."
"Wait a minute," she hesitated. "I want to think."
She had not meant to tell him so soon, in the first shock of the death, about what she had found. But he was going away, and he ought to know, it was his right to know.
"Will you wait here for me a moment, Wayne?" she asked looking pitifully up into the face of the man whose grave eyes were fixed upon her. "Until I run to the house and get something?"
She was glad then that the other men were able to eat, and that her mother and Julia were waiting on them. Hastening back to her room, she took the revolver from its hiding place in her trunk, slipped it into her blouse and ran back to the orchard.
"Wayne," she whispered coming close to him, suspicious of every little sound in the orchard, fearful of an approaching footstep. "I found something near Arthur. I did not tell any one. As you are going away I had better tell you."
She held out the revolver. The sunlight fell on it, glinting brightly from the polished silver. Wayne Shandon stared at it frowning, as though he could not or would not believe his eyes. Slowly a deeper pallor crept into his white face. Then a terrible look which the girl could not read came into his eyes.
"Good God!" he whispered hoarsely. "You found that near him?"
Suddenly he put his hand out and took it. His fingers touched hers. They were as cold as ice.
"Wanda," he said, his voice frightening her, it was so hard and unfamiliar, "you were good to give it to me."
That was all. She felt vaguely that his mind was groping for other words which it could not find. He slipped the revolver into his pocket, turned and left her.
From the orchard she watched him ride away. Jim was driving the two big greys, while Shandon followed close behind the wagon, sitting very straight in the saddle, his face telling her nothing. . . . She sank back upon the grass under the apple tree and lay still, staring up at the patches of blue seen through the green and white of the branches and blossoms.
When at last she went back to the house she heard her father's voice lifted angrily. He was talking to her mother and the name flung furiously from his lips was the name of Wayne Shandon.
"Hush, Martin," protested Mrs. Leland. "You mustn't . . ."
Martin Leland, his face red, his mouth working wordlessly, swept up his hat and went away to the corrals by the stable. Wanda saw his eyes as he brushed by her and she shivered, drawing away from him.
Garth Conway had already gone, riding the half dozen miles to the Bar L-M to carry word of the death of its owner, and to assume entire charge there until Wayne should return. Sledge Hume was loitering down by the stable.
The day passed, strangely silent. No reference was made in the Leland household to the tragedy which had stirred each member of it so deeply, so differently. Throughout the long afternoon Martin Leland remained among his cattle and horses, often flaring into anger at trifles. Mrs. Leland was in her room, alone, suffering as she might have suffered had Arthur and Wayne been the sons nature had denied to her. Wanda wandered restlessly back and forth, from the house to the stable, about the yard, where the pigeons whirled and circled and cooed.
The days which followed were like this one, silent, tense, expectant. It was as though each one of these people was waiting for something, all but breathless. MacKelvey, a heavy set, quick eyed man, the county sheriff, came one day and talked long with Martin Leland. The two sat for an hour on the corral fence below the stable. After that MacKelvey went away and the waiting, the tense expectancy was more marked than before.
The tenth day came and went its laughing, blue way. Wayne Shandon did not come with it, but Garth Conway rode over that evening. He had had no word from Wayne, although he was expecting him hourly. Two weeks passed, and still no word from Wayne. One by one, slowly, heavily the days went by.
Then at last Garth Conway rode again to the Leland ranch house and brought tidings of Wayne. He had tired of New York, but he was not yet coming West. Instead he was sailing for Europe, and would probably go down into Africa for some hunting.
"Where does he get the money?" demanded Martin Leland sharply.
Garth's short laugh was rather full answer. But he elaborated it into words:
"I am to rush a forced sale of cattle," he said, lifting his shoulders. "He wants two thousand dollars in a hurry. God knows what for. He is going to fritter his property away just as he fritters away everything!"
Leland sprang up from his chair, his two fists clenched and lifted high above his head, his eyes blazing.
"Martin! Martin!" cried Mrs. Leland.
He dropped his hands to his sides and turned away, the words on his tongue checked.
"Dear God," Wanda prayed within her soul. "Let him be a man. Let him come back soon. Before every one believes he did that thing, before . . . they send for him!"
THE WHITE HUNTRESS
Two months, filled with the clean breath of outdoors, had softened the memory of that stark tragedy upon which Wanda had come at the edge of Echo Creek. Not forgotten, never to be wiped clean from the memory, still the keen horror was dulled, the harsh details blurred, the whole dreadful picture softened under the web which the spider of time weaves over an old canvas.
Again life was glad and good and golden. Again youth was eager and hopeful and merry. The death which had come and changed the world had gone, leaving the world as it has always been.
Wanda and Gypsy and Shep saw much of one another. They were all very happy, perhaps because they were very busy. Full of enthusiasm that was at once gay and serious Wanda had thrown herself into her "Work" immediately upon returning home in the early springtime. Before the tragic event which for the time had driven her life out of its groove she had already won for herself the title, bestowed merrily by Wayne Shandon, of the "White Huntress." Her "work," to which she gave up so many hours of each day, was purposeful, steadily pursued, and brought her a vast pleasure. The game she hunted was the squirrel tossing his grey body through the branches of pine and cedar, the quail calling from the hillsides, the cottontail scampering through the underbrush, the yellowhammer, the woodpecker, the wide winged butterflies sailing through the orchard and across the meadow lands. The weapon with which she hunted was a camera which she carried in its black case slung over her shoulder or hanging from the horn of Gypsy's saddle.
Reared since babyhood in a land where men and women were few and where the wild things of the forests were many and unafraid, she had long ago come to look upon the little, bright eyed woodland folk as her playmates. Many of her childhood sorrows and joys were linked with their fates. Her first great grief had occurred when she was ten years old and Jule, her brown bear cub,—named after the cook to whom he bore in the child's eyes a marked resemblance, a slight and necessary variation in the termination of the name taking care of the matter of a difference in sex,—came to an untimely end through the instinctive and merciless conduct of Shep's grandparents. The house was filled with chipmunks who frightened Julia, to whom they were "jest rats, drat 'em," and who raided the kitchen systematically. A trained grey squirrel barked from the trees above the house, and pet rabbits were numerous and unprofitable about the vegetable garden. At the age when little girls in the cities were dressing and undressing their dolls, Wanda was taming a palpitating heart in some little fury [Transcriber's note: furry?] breast or leaning breathlessly, like a small mother bird herself, over a nest in the grass watching eagerly for the tender bills to peck and chip their way out into the wonderful world.
It was but natural therefore that after her childhood had gone and she had outgrown her passion for numberless pets overrunning the house just as her sisters in the cities had outgrown their pleasure in dressing and undressing dolls, she should become the "White Huntress." She loved more than ever the wildness of the forest lands, and the ways of the woodland things were wonderful and mysterious to her. And now, from a new angle, they were her study.
There were days when she rode far out from the ranch house, her lunch at her saddle strings, to be gone until dusk or after the stars came out. She would leave Gypsy tethered where the grass was deep and rich, command Shep to lie down and see that nobody ran away with her outfit, and then tramp off alone, carrying her camera. She knew how to climb up into the tree and to screen herself behind the foliage, so that she might watch the mother bird and her ways, and find out when she should expect the joyous miracle of new life.
When the eggs were hatched Wanda was ready. Days before she had chosen the exact spot on the particular limb where she would place her camera. She had clothed herself as the springtime clothed the forests. A soft blouse of green, short skirt and stockings of green, little cap of green and green moccasins. She crouched upon the broad limb of a cedar or clung more hazardously to the branch of a pine, the tone colour of her costume making no discord with the dusky sheen of the waving branches, and watched and waited. So, when "hunting" was good she had a picture of the mother bird perched upon the edge of the nest in which the eggs lay, a picture of the nest with the little, new birds obeying the first command of nature, a picture of the parents feeding them the first worm or berry or rebellious bug, a picture of the trial flight when soft young bodies essayed independence on unskilful wings.
At first the girl had been merely an amateur in the early, sweet sense of the word. Then one day she saw a couple of pages in an illustrated magazine devoted to such photographs as these she was playing with. They were better than hers, since the man who had taken them was a trained artist as well as a lover of the wild; and they had been at once a disappointment and an inspiration to her. Then, upon another day, her father who made little comment upon her pastime, handed her a box from the express office in which she found a camera with a lens that would do its part if she learned to do hers. And that was when she threw herself so enthusiastically into her "work."
"I am going to have a page of pictures in that same magazine," was her way of thanking him. "And mine are going to be better!"
She flushed a little at his smile, but when she had gone away and was alone with her new possession and a world of possibilities, her chin was very firm.
She had her own studio in the attice above the dining room, developed plates and films there, and descended the ladder into the hallway flushed with triumph or vexed with disappointment as her efforts proved to be good or bad. The mistakes had been many at first; they were few now.
She became a student of the "Home Life of the Wild Things." They all interested her, they all posed for her, squirrel and bird and butterfly. Inevitably she began to specialise, but her specialisation was not in one species but rather in one process, in the dawning and budding life of the young in the real "home life" before the new fledgling or tiny furred body left the nest for an independent life and a future nest of its own. The wild mates at work upon the house which instinct prompted was to be of use soon, the construction of a swinging pocket hung high up by an oriole, this was a part of the home life, just as essential a part of it as the covering of the eggs, the feeding of the young.
Before the year had swelled and blossomed into full mid-summer she had a pupil. It was her mother. Mother and daughter had always been more to each other than the terms commonly imply, very nearly all that they should connote. They had been friends. Here where the solitudes were mighty and vast, where long miles and hard trails lay between homes and where women were few, they had had but themselves to turn to when need or desire came for the company of their own sex. Mrs. Leland had remained young, in part because hers was a happy, sunny nature, in part because she had had the fires of youth replenished from the superabundant glow of girlhood in her daughter.
But now that the summer came with monotony and silence, now that Arthur Shandon came no more, that Wayne seemed to have forgotten the range country, that Garth Conway was busy every day with the entire management of a heavily stocked cattle outfit, there were long, quiet days at the Echo Creek.
"Wanda," Mrs. Leland said one day, a little wistfully. "Can't I come with you and take a peep first hand into the homes of your wild friends? I'll be very still, I'll stay with Shep and Gypsy if you want me to."
Wanda, at once contrite and happy, was filled with apologies and explanations. She had had no thought that her mother would find an interest in her "play." But if she would come, if she would like to come, oh, she would show her the most wonderful discovery. . . .
So mother and daughter rode out together that day with lunch and camera, and that night worked together in Wanda's attic studio over a highly satisfactory film. The older woman's interest became as steady, as enthusiastic in a deeply thoughtful way, as Wanda's. She learned to love each day's adventure as warmly as did her daughter, she came to have the same tender joy in the unexpected discovery of some new phase of the home life of the wild.
"In all of your hunting you are missing something, my White Huntress," she said one day. "Something which I have discovered!"
Wanda smiled brightly at her over the top of a new picture, pleased with her mother's interest no less than with the print in her hands.
"What is it, mamma?"
"I am not going to tell you yet. But to-morrow when we go out for the oriole's nest, I am going to take your old kodak!"
As they rode the five or six miles to the spot where they were to do the morning's "hunting" Wanda wondered what it was she had missed that her mother had noticed. But she promptly forgot about it when she climbed the great pine which, for her mother's purpose, was so happily situated close to a cliff. She noted with a bright nod of approval as she edged far out upon a horizontal limb that her mother had made her own way up to the cliff top. Long she waited that morning, patient and happy and still, her camera set in front of her, before she got the exposure she wanted. And she did not hear the other click of the other machine, did not know that her mother had been as patient and as contented waiting to get the picture she wanted of Wanda as Wanda had been in snapping the bird and the nest and the young, hungry mouths at the threshold.
That afternoon they developed and printed, each her own pictures. And when Mrs. Leland had finished she showed Wanda what she had done. There was the picture of Wanda, far out upon the great limb, eager and watchful, her camera ready, the oriole's nest swinging before her, the mother bird just dropping down to it. And below and beyond were the ground, looking immeasurably distant, the fir and pine branches, the forest of trees.
"You see, Wanda, what you have overlooked?" Mrs. Leland's eyes were unusually bright. "You have dozens of pictures that are wonderful, pictures that you strove for for weeks, months at a time! One looks at your picture and sees that it is wonderful, but does not understand how wonderful. You cling to a branch or a tree trunk or the side of a cliff, fifty or a hundred and fifty feet of space below you, and take your picture. People look at the picture and do not see that the wonderful thing, the interesting thing, is how you got it!"
"But . . ." began Wanda.
"But," Mrs. Leland laughed happily, "just listen to me a moment, miss. You are going on with your pictures and I am going to follow you very humbly and take other pictures to show how you get them. We'll send both sets to your magazines and you'll see if mine aren't snapped up just as quick as yours!"
So the relationship of mother and daughter which had grown into that of a warm, intimate friendship now developed into closer, more intimate companionship. Together they found bright, brimming days that otherwise might have been dull and empty.
Wanda came to realise that a woman who is forty may be, in all essentials, as young as a girl of twenty, and that the added score of years while it brings truer insight and perhaps a steadier heart does not quench ardour or deaden the emotions.
"Mamma," she said one day, looking up brightly from the development of a film from her mother's kodak, "you are just a girl yourself!"
And Mrs. Leland was just girl enough to flush, and youthful enough to laugh as musically as her daughter.
Thus, as the days went by and they were frequently alone together, Martin Leland being often away on the business upon which he and Arthur Shandon had entered with Sledge Hume, the two women were not lonely. Mrs. Leland accompanied Wanda everywhere to take pictures showing the girl climbing for a lofty bird nest, clinging to the cliffs at the upper end of the valley, crouching hidden among the bushes waiting for a rabbit to hop into the picture, even on the deer "hunt" they had already begun.
So the late summer slipped by more swiftly in its smooth channel than ever, the leaves in the orchard yellowed with the fall, the light green tips upon the fir branches turned dark green, the cattle were driven down to the lower valleys along the creeks, and the first snows of winter dimmed the shortening days.
With the passing of the summer, Garth Conway came again to be a frequent visitor at the Echo Creek ranch house. Since the letter from Wayne Shandon in New York he had had but one communication from the man who now owned the Bar L-M. It had been characteristically short, written in London.
"I am leaving the destiny of the cows In your competent hands," Wayne wrote. "I am legally giving you a power of attorney. This authorises you to run the outfit as you judge best. Make what sales you want to to pay the boys and yourself. Bank the money or re-invest for improvements and more cattle. The Lord knows when I'll come back . . . provided the Devil has told Him."
And then, in a postscript, hastily scribbled he had added,
"I have made my will . . . Imagine me making a will! . . . and if I don't come back at all the outfit is yours. Love to the Lelands."
And then, as a second afterthought, he had scrawled at the top of the note.
"A joke on you in case I shouldn't come back, Garth! I want you to sell some cows and send me another two thousand. But I promise not to do it again."
Garth told his news in the living room where the family had been listening to the music of Wanda's lilting young voice with her mother's piano accompaniment when he came in. Mrs. Leland's smiling face grew clouded and distressed and her eyes turned involuntarily to her husband. Martin Leland sprang to his feet in sudden wrath.
"Hell's bells!" he shouted angrily. "Two sacrifice sales in less than a year! Four thousand dollars! And what has he done with it? Got drunk, chucked it away across race courses and card tables . . . Would to God I had done what it was my duty to do, that . . ."
"Martin!" cried Mrs. Leland. "Martin, dear!"
He stopped abruptly and sank back into his chair. For a little while there was silence, heavy and painful. Wanda's eyes grew misty. Not once since that day in the spring had she been disloyal to Red Reckless, whom she had known in his boyhood, who had fought her early battles for her, who had been the plumed knight of her early girlhood. She told herself now that he had not come back because he could not bear to return yet to the place where he and his brother had spent so many happy days together, that if he was living wildly now, scurrying up and down the world and flinging away his inheritance, it was because he had felt his brother's loss far more than he had let them know, that he was going his pace swiftly to forget what lay behind. And again there rose in her heart the mute prayer that he might come back and be a man and show them all that they had not judged him fairly.
Garth glanced swiftly at the faces of these three people who had heard his news with such varied emotions, and went on to break the silence none of them had noticed.
"Matters are going rather well on the range," he said quietly. "I sold a hundred head at an average of ninety-seven dollars last week and was able to bank the entire nine thousand, seven hundred. Maybe," with a quick smile, "it will be just as well if he doesn't come back in a hurry."
"Oh," cried Wanda impulsively. "That is ungenerous of you! After Wayne says that he is leaving everything to you in his will, too!"
"I don't mean to be ungenerous or yet ungrateful," replied Garth a bit stiffly, flushing under the girl's reproachful eyes. "I only meant . . ."
"Wanda," said her father sharply, "you should be ashamed of yourself! Garth has not been ungenerous and you have. And he is right. It would be the best thing for Wayne himself as well as for the range if he doesn't come back for a long time. Garth is working hard for the interests of both. And if any one should be grateful to the man who is running his range for him it is that young spendthrift. You are not thinking, Wanda."
The girl bit her lip and turned away. And she did not make the apology her father expected. Dimly it seemed to her that they were all over ready, over eager to condemn the man whose one crime had been mere heedlessness, who was surely hurting no one but himself, but who offended their ideas in refusing to take life seriously and bear the common burden of responsibility.
"After all," said Mrs. Leland a little hurriedly, "Wayne is only a boy. Oh, he's a man in years, of course, but then some people are fortunate enough to carry their youth with them a long time before it drops off. And," with a smile, "he says he won't do it again!"
Martin Leland smoked his two pipefuls of strong tobacco and then departed to attend to some correspondence. Mrs. Leland soon slipped away to her book and easy chair and cushions in a corner. Until ten o'clock Wanda and Garth bent together over a big scrap book containing the latest additions to the home life of the wild.
Soon afterward even Garth Conway's visits to the Leland home stopped. November came with many dark days and an occasional flurry of snow. The ground might at any time now be covered, the passes choked with the soft drifts, the valleys hidden. The cattle must be moved down the mountains to the foothills where each year they wintered. The Bar L-M buildings were closed, the heavy wooden shutters put up, the corrals deserted until thaw time. Conway with his men and cattle would not come again until springtime came with them.
And over the Echo Creek ranch the silence of the summer passed into the deeper silence of winter. Leland's cattle and men had gone already to his winter range; there was no one at home excepting Mrs. Leland, Wanda, Julia, and Jim who remained to do what little work there was to be done during the term of "hibernating." Martin's interests were too big for him to stay here had he desired to do so; his family would not see him again for the two months or so during which he remained outside.
It was not the first year that the Echo Creek house was not shuttered and closed for the winter. Mrs. Leland had sometimes gone with her husband to spend the storm swept months of the year either at one of his other ranches or in the city, and sometimes she had stayed here. This winter she had no particular desire to leave her comfortable home for the makeshift of a San Francisco hotel and Wanda was eager to stay.
"You'll be cooped up within ten days like shipwrecks on a raft," Martin Leland said when he managed to make a trip back to the ranch in December. "We're in for a hard winter. I wouldn't be surprised if I couldn't get in again or you get out before well on into February or March."
He had made a flying trip between storms, hastening from El Toyon to White Rock over the mail route, coming in from White Rock through the still open pass through the mountains. His one object in coming had been to try to induce his women folk to leave Echo Creek. And the same day, seeing the threat of bad weather, he went out again, on skis and alone.
There were busy days for all four who remained at the ranch house in making preparations for idle, comfortable days to follow. Jim brought vast quantities of wood from the basement, piling it high in the corner of the living room where it would be convenient for feeding the deep throated fireplace whose rocks would stay warm all night, hot all day, for many weeks. From the yard he brought more wood, piling it in the basement until there were only narrow passageways between the slabs and logs and the finer split stove wood. Julia superintended the placing of her kitchen supplies, secreted those little delicacies which she would require at Christmas time, arranged her canned goods and perpetually fussed and rearranged in her storeroom. Meanwhile Mrs. Leland and Wanda were everywhere at once, overseeing the moving of beds, the shifting of furniture, the making cosy of the home against the siege. And then, howling and shrieking, with deep voice shouting across the pine forests, the winter came in earnest.
Martin Leland had read the signs aright; it was to be a hard winter. There came a wind storm that lasted without cessation for three days; the branches of the cedars about the house tossed like long arms grappling with an unseen foe; here and there a dead limb was wrenched from a tree trunk and hurled far out to be buried in the snow which began to fall in small, hard flakes almost congealed to hail. Then, the three days gone, the wind died down suddenly, the flakes grew larger, softer, the snow clung tenaciously to the trees and fences and eaves of house and stable. Jim in arctic shoes and mittens, his ears lost under the flaps of his cap, having sighed and bestirred himself from his snug comfort by Julia's stove, got his shovel and went up on the housetop.
While the bleak, chill days rushed by Wanda prepared happily for the fine weather which would come, when the sun reflected back from many feet of fluffy snow would warm the air, when in the high, dry altitudes the sparkling, Christmassy world would become a rarely beautiful thing, when she could leave the house and penetrate deep into a solitude which was as different from the solitude of the summer forestland as day is from night. She brought down from the attic her own favourite pair of skis and saw that they were fit. The long slender bits of pine, light and graceful with their running grooves glistening, their turned up ends like Turks' slippers, she stood on end in the living room while she gave them a new coat of white shellac. Her snowshoe pole she tested, making sure that it had sustained no injury during its long banishment to the dark places of the attic, and that it could be trusted in the work she would call upon it to do. She gathered the winter out-door things which she had not used for two years, the white sweater that clung close to her slim, pliant body; the white tasseled hat, mitts, leggins, white bloomers. And then, when a blue and white, laughing day came, and the air was clear and warm, the branches of the trees sagging under their diamond pricked festoons of snow, she left the house, now in truth the White Huntress.
Camera and field glasses went with her; for lunch a bit of jerked beef and a piece of hard chocolate. For to-day she began her winter work. Again she was hunting. The forests as she slipped through them were very still and seemed void of all the life that had swarmed here until the snows came. But she would see snow birds, she might find a coyote or a big snow-shoe rabbit. She would take pictures, too, such wintry pictures as she had never seen, the world locked in the embrace of winter, glistening icicles as big as her body, cliffs thrown into strange, grotesque shapes, fields of untracked white with perhaps the sweep of a stream seeming ink black against the dazzling white background.
And she thrilled to the crunch of thin crust underfoot which yesterday's thaw and last night's freeze had formed, the whip of the dry air in her face, the exhilaration of the long, swift dash as she glided from the crest of some ridge, a silent, graceful creature, into the hollow beyond. Her body bent a little forward, her snow-shoe pole horizontal as a tight rope walker holds his balancing rod, the white world slid away beneath her, little sinks or humps in the apparent smoothness of the snow demanding the sudden leap which shot the blood tingling through the eager body. For the light skis with their three coats of shellac carried her down the steeper slopes with the wild speed of a bird skimming the winter whitened earth.
This first day she took an old favourite way which led her up a gradual slope straight southward until at last she paused, breathing deeply, upon the crest. Far behind her she could see the smoke of the ranch house rising from a clump of cedars; straight ahead the black line of the river. And now, balancing a moment, gripping her pole firmly, settling her feet securely in the ski-straps, she shot downward, taking the steep dip which would lead after a little into a long curve and so bring her flashing through the trees down to the river three miles away.
Her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks glowing, her body warm with the sun's heat and the leaping blood within her, when she straightened up and touching the end of her pole lightly against the snow came to a stop near the river. It was swollen and black, a mighty, shouting thing, the only thing about her whose voice had not been stilled by the snow.
Her eyes turning found close at hand the first tracks she had seen this morning, fresh tracks of a big rabbit.
"I must have frightened him," she thought. "He's gone on upstream."
She turned upstream as the rabbit had done, noiselessly following his trail. And, turned eastward by a rabbit's track, she followed unconsciously, unsuspectingly, the imperious bidding of her fate. Her own life, the lives of two men would have been widely different had Wanda Leland turned westward instead of eastward this morning.
Already she was a mile above the bridge across which the road ran to the Bar L-M. From where she was a stranger might not suppose that man or horse could find a place to cross in many times that distance; for here the river banks were steep cliffs, never lower than ten feet, rising often abruptly to thirty. Between them the water raged, thundering over falls, leaping into deep pools where the sucking eddies were never still.
And as she moved on upstream, further yet from the bridge, the rocky banks grew steeper, drew nearer to each other, until suddenly the plunging river was lost to her, its thunder muffled. Wanda could see a thick mat of snow from a great, flat topped rock on the far side curving downward, inward, as if from the eaves of a house, the long icicles like sharp teeth set in a monster's gaping jaw.
Close along the edge of the cliffs the course of the fleeing rabbit led, while Wanda's skis left their parallel smooth tracks in a straight line a score of feet back from the steep bank. She slipped silently through a clump of firs, peered around the branches bent down by the heavy snow, and saw the snow-shoe rabbit where he had stopped for a moment. He was a big fellow, the biggest she had ever seen, crouching low, his round eyes bright and suspicious, as he trusted to his colour to protect him. She brought her camera swiftly out of its case.
"There's a chance to get him, after all," she thought eagerly. "It won't be much of a picture perhaps . . . just a white blur against a white background . . ."
The camera clicked just as the rabbit leaped forward; she thought she had caught him against the dark background of a fir from which much of the snow had fallen. Then, just in front of the frightened animal a little branch of a small pine, suddenly released of its weight of snow, whipped up; a new terror came into the creature's panic stricken breast; he stopped sharply, swerved, lost his head as one of his rattle brained species is likely to do, ran directly toward the girl, swerved again and running straight toward the river, essayed the impossible and met destruction. He leaped far out across the water, attempting a jump that none of his kind could have made safely, and fell short. The furry body described a great valiant arc, shot upward for one flashing second, dropped out of sight.
"Oh, I am so sorry," cried the girl contritely. "You poor little thing."
The woodland tragedy moved her strangely, for she felt that, innocently enough, she had caused it. She moved closer to see if by a happy chance the rabbit had landed upon a rocky shelf far down, hoping that after all she might in some way set him free.
Moving slowly, her camera again in its case, her pole touching the snow, she approached until she could look down. Only the steep wall on the far side, sinking straight and black into the swollen torrent, only a little speck of white far down which might have been a struggling body or a fleck of foam.
"The poor little thing," she said again. "He saw that the far bank is lower than this one, and he was too frightened to guess the distance."
Musing, she thought that her skis were merely settling a little deeper through the crust when she felt a slight sinking underneath. Then, suddenly, she was aware that her skis were dipping downward, that she was slipping. She tried hastily to draw back, she felt that she was still slipping, that the polished surfaces of the skis were answering the call of gravity, that she was being drawn closer, closer in spite of her efforts . . .
She made a wild, frantic attempt to draw back, a quick terror gripping her. The shouting river was calling to her, something was pulling at her body steadily as a magnet pulls at a steel, the world was slipping away under her, she was going the way the rabbit had gone . . .
Then she threw her body backward, twisting as best she could with the skis clinging to her feet, clutching with her hands at anything her fingers might touch. She heard a splash, knew that the overhang of snow had dropped into the river, knew that one ski was hanging over the brink. And then the hand that had gripped at the smooth snow sank down and clutched the top of a small, hidden pine, she drew herself up and back and in a moment, white, shaking she lay still, not daring to look down.
THE HOME COMING OF RED RECKLESS
Winter went its white way, the spring brought a thawing sun, innumerable muddy torrents and an occasional visitor, the robins and blue birds began to troop back to the mountains. Martin Leland was at home, his sturdier steers were in the valleys, Conway came back to the Bar L-M and often visited the Lelands. Sledge Hume rode up from the Dry Lands, fifty miles down the slope of the mountains and was often in consultation with Martin and with Garth Conway.
Warm weather battled against the rear guard of winter, only patches of soiled snow remained upon the north side of the ridges, in the narrow canons and upon the lofty summits of the peaks standing up about the valleys. The early flowers dotted the valleys, more cattle were moved in, and the season developed rapidly. Conway came frequently to talk with Martin, to remain for supper, to chat with Wanda and her mother. And then one day, unheralded, unlooked for, Red Reckless came home.
It was the supper hour, just after dark. Father, mother and daughter were at the table, when there came a quick step upon the veranda, and the joy which the gay springtime had put into Wanda's heart brimmed up and spilled over.
"It's Garth," said Martin Leland lightly. "I expected he'd ride over to-night."
"It's Wayne!" cried Wanda, already upon her feet.
"Wayne!" snapped her father, his face suddenly stern. "What are you talking about?"
"I know his step. It is Wayne!"
Wanda had already run to the door, and flung it wide open. It was very dark outside. The tall form of a man loomed strangely large, dimly outlined against the black curtain of the night.
"Welcome home, Wanderer!" Wanda cried gaily.
Wayne Shandon came in, his big boots dusty with his ride, his red hair catching fire from the light in the room, his eyes laughing, his lips laughing, his voice laughing when he greeted Wanda with two eager hands. He was the same Wayne Shandon who had ridden away a year ago, the same Red Reckless he had ever been.
Mrs. Leland's startled surprise vanished swiftly before her joy in seeing him. But Martin Leland's face went black, his eyes burned ominously, it was as though he had been gripped with a choking, speechless wrath.
"Wayne!" cried Mrs. Leland. "Where in the world have you come from?"
"From a place they call Hell's Annex, seven hundred miles inland from the South African Coast," he laughed lightly. "My arrival timed just to the minute for supper!"
He dropped Wanda's hands with a parting squeeze which was frankly unhidden, strode over to Mrs. Leland whom he kissed resoundingly, and put out a big, strong hand to Martin Leland.
For just a fraction of a second the two women knew that Leland was hesitating, for an instant they waited fearfully, for what he might do. Then he took the hand proffered him, his lips twitched into a hard, forced smile and he said rather colourlessly,
"Well, Wayne, you've come home at last, have you?"
Wayne's answer was a laugh. He seemed filled with laughter to-night. Evidently he had noticed nothing strange in Leland's greeting; he was in the gayest of his gay moods. He had no opportunity to answer Leland's words, for Julia, who had forgotten her usual slow, ponderous method of travel bounced into the room like a wonderfully animated ball at the sound of his voice, and he actually swept the two hundred pounds of her off of her feet as he gathered the big woman up into his arms and kissed her. Then Julia dabbed at her eyes and fled to her kitchen, her emotions finding outlet in an instantaneous desire to make him a pie, Wanda laid a plate for him and supper went on.
Chiefly because of Wanda's eager questions and Wayne Shandon's laughing willingness to tell about his adventures, the abstraction on the part of Martin Leland and the growing anxiety in Mrs. Leland's eyes went unnoticed. Wayne was immoderately hungry as he first frankly confided and then demonstrated, but he found opportunity between mouthfuls to draw, in his sketchy way, the series of pictures which made up the year of his wanderings. He had travelled from New York to London, he had whizzed through Paris and dipped into Baden, he had been seasick on a Mediterranean which wasn't blue, he had barked his shins on a pyramid, he had been swindled out of a ridiculously large sum of money by a little scientist in green spectacles who was out on a mummy digging expedition, and he had gone into the interior after big game. He had managed to take in a Derby and to pick a winner, he had made Monte Carlo recognise that he had come,—although he did not go into detail as to the manner of his departure,—and he had brought home a present for everybody. The skin he had taken from a lion somewhere in some remote jungle to sprawl, rug fashion in Wanda's room, where it created no little havoc in the furniture arrangement and finally caused the dressing table to be shifted to a corner to make place for the enormous, gaping head with the fierce eyes; an Indian shawl for Mrs. Leland, selected evidently for size and brilliance of pattern, very nearly large enough to carpet the dining room and of an astonishing combination of dark greens and riotous reds and royal purples; an ornate scarf pin for Martin Leland who had as much use for a scarf pin as a Mohammedan for a Bible; an exquisite set of chessmen for Garth purchased with a quick eye to the subtle art which had gone into their carving and with a fine disregard for the fact that Garth had existed for thirty odd years without learning that the curveting progress of a knight is in any way different from the ecclesiastical slant of a bishop, completed the assortment of presents.
Garth himself came in as they were pushing back their chairs from the table, throwing open the door with a merry, "Hello, folks," on his lips. Then as he caught sight of Wayne who had leaped up and swung about he stared, suddenly speechless, his mouth dropping open.
"Well, Garth, old boy," cried Wayne heartily. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
Garth came forward then swiftly, his hand out-stretched. But his eyes were still startled rather than glad, and they passed his cousin turning, full of question, to Martin Leland.