"Wanda," he interrupted, his voice at once stern and troubled. "Do you remember when you gave me the revolver that morning? I didn't explain to you, even you. I couldn't. If I went away and stayed so long, if I didn't remain here doing the thing you suggest, offering rewards, hiring detectives to hunt his murderer down, couldn't you guess why? You found the revolver that killed him."
"And the day Arthur and I rode into El Toyon I gave the thing to him. It was his own then. He shot himself. God knows why. I should have spoken then, I should have told MacKelvey, your father, every one. But I hated to, I hated the thought of it, of having people know that Arthur had committed suicide, of having men talk of it. I thought that there would be investigations, of course, but that they would die down. I knew that no man would be accused; it was my secret. I would keep it for Arthur's sake."
He broke off sharply, moved strongly by his own words that conjured up something he had striven manfully to shut out of his mind, strongly moving the girl who heard him. She watched him with piteous, sad eyes while he strode up and down, back and forth in the candle lighted cave. Suddenly he stopped, exclaiming bitterly,
"Your father thinks this of me. Who else? Does half the countryside believe me a murderer? Does Garth believe it? Does Hume? Does your mother?"
"I don't know what Garth and Sledge Hume think," she answered. "I do know about mamma. Wayne, even she was afraid at first, even mamma. But she knows you too well, dear. She says that you are the other Wayne Shandon, over and over; that you may have been a spendthrift and a brawler,—forgive me,—dear, but that you have always been an honest and manly man. She knows that we love each other, Wayne. She knows that I have expected to see you. Isn't that enough?"
"Next to you, Wanda, she is the sweetest woman in the world." He took the girl's hands in his and stood looking down at her gravely. "And you, you have never been afraid? You recognised the revolver, you brought it to me. Are you very sure—"
"Kiss me, Wayne," she said for answer.
And yet, when they parted lingeringly, the little cloud was still upon the horizon, the uneasy feeling of uncertainty upon them. If, at this late hour, he went to the sheriff and told the truth, what would be the result? Would it sound like the truth to MacKelvey? To Martin Leland?
WILLIE DART PICKS A LOCK
The summer sped by like one long golden day under its rare blue sky; yet always upon the horizon was that single black cloud. Not until summer had gone its bright way and winter had come, locked the mountain passes and departed again, was the way to be made clear.
If Wayne Shandon could have had the opportunity to act at once when Wanda told him the reason of her father's open enmity he would have gone immediately in his headlong way to MacKelvey. He would have told the sheriff his own version of the tragedy; he would have recounted the finding of the revolver by Wanda, her giving it to him, his certainty that Arthur had taken his own life. But having promised Wanda to do nothing rashly, without again talking with her, having pondered deeply as he rode back to the Bar L-M and during the days which followed, he came to see sanely that for his own sake and for the sake of the girl he loved it would be better if he held his peace until time and thought brought clear vision.
He was already suspected by Martin Leland, perhaps by MacKelvey himself, perhaps by many men among whom he came and went. Would the story he had to tell lessen suspicion in any single breast? Would it not rather give the sheriff just such a bit of evidence as he had long been seeking?
Much alike in one great essential Wayne Shandon and Wanda Leland had hearts that were tuned to happiness. To such people it is easier to be gay than sad; the trouble, stern as it was, that had entered their lives so early was less than the brightness which dissipated all other troubles but that one. Good fortune had disclosed to them a meeting place as high as the waving treetops where no one's curious eye would penetrate; they could converse across the miles almost as people may call across a street; they could be together two or three times a week without their world knowing. These things gave wings to the summer.
They were busy days, clad in action, crowned with dreamings. Wanda's cave became a dainty bower for a fair lady. Across the cliffs, by tortuous trail, it was a scant five miles to the little mountain town of White Rock. Many a dim morning before the shadows lifted to the rising sun the trail had echoed to the clanging hoofs of Shandon's horse as he rode down and back, bringing a surprise for Wanda. A packhorse had brought in supplies, bought in Shandon's own reckless way, which when piled high against the rock walls made Wanda gasp and ask him if he thought that she was going to take in boarders. There were camp stools, there were rugs. A tiny sheetiron camp stove came one day, and when Wanda put her rosy face through the screen that Wayne had substituted for her old one, her nostrils were assailed by the odours of boiling coffee, frying bacon, sizzling apples and burning bread.
There were strings of onions, and potatoes popping out of their bag before the summer died; a side of bacon swung against a ham where Wayne had driven a dead branch into a crevice in the rocks; there was a table he had constructed rudely but securely; there were books on it; there were candles burning everywhere.
"Because," he had laughed at her surprise, "winter will come one of these days, and do you think that I'm not going to see you until it's gone again? Oh, I suppose I'll have to be down at the lower pastures with the stock, but I'll get up here now and again. Then when a fine day comes and you want a long ski ride, you'll know where to come, won't you, Wanda? Where a hot luncheon will be waiting for you? And, who knows," he whispered, "maybe we'll spend our honeymoon here sometime!"
Shandon at first had thought of going to Garth Conway, of asking him frankly what the deal was in which he and Sledge Hume and Mr. Leland were interested, and if they were counting upon needing the Bar L-M water as Ruf Ettinger had told him they were. But in this matter also had he altered his first quick decision. He had always liked Conway, at least, without thinking a great deal about it he supposed he had, for the very simple reason that they were cousins and had, in a way, grown up together. But on the other hand they were men essentially unlike, in no respect congenial. They had never been confidential; were they the only two men in the world it is doubtful if one would have carried his personal thoughts and emotions to the other. That little reserve which had always existed, scarcely noted by Wayne Shandon, was suddenly a wall between them. This was Conway's business; if he chose to keep it his secret from his cousin, Wayne Shandon was not the man to ask him to talk about it.
Moreover, perhaps even more important now than that consideration, there was another. Leland and Hume had at least been upon the point of going into this matter just before Arthur's death, and they had taken Arthur into their confidence. Perhaps he was to have been one of their corporation when one was formed. Now that Wayne owned the Bar L-M and the water, the logical thing for them to do was to come to him. They had brought Garth into the circle of their endeavour; they had ignored Shandon. A little hurt at the obvious significance of this Shandon shrugged his shoulders and resolved that when the first word was spoken it would not be by himself.
And soon he came close to forgetting it. The incentive to bestir himself had at last come into his life and he was not loitering. Little by little, through long talks with Garth, with Big Bill and other men of his outfit, he came to have a grasp upon the work which should have been his a year before, and an interest in it. Only now for the first time did he take the trouble to learn the real meaning of resources and liabilities; to estimate profit and loss; to speculate upon success in the business which he found rather larger than he had suspected. He called a round-up to learn to the head how many steers and cows and calves carried the Bar L-M brand. He brought a quick look of surprise that was close to suspicion into Garth's eyes by asking casually just what sums had been taken in during the last year by sales of beef, how the money had been reinvested, if there was a surplus in the bank. He went into the matter of the wages of all of the men, and learned that Garth himself was drawing the same salary he had drawn under Arthur.
"Oh, I'm not thinking that you're holding out on me," he laughed at Garth's expression. "I've just begun thinking that it's about time I'm doing part of my own work. So everything you got out of the sales last year you slapped back into the business, buying more cattle?"
"I sent you four thousand, you remember," Garth reminded him.
"You don't quite get me, Garth. What's left of that four thousand wouldn't buy a sack of tobacco. We haven't banked any cash, have we?"
Even now Garth hesitated, Garth's way. Then he answered.
"Arthur left fifteen hundred in the bank. I haven't touched that, of course. If you haven't—"
"I didn't know it was there," laughed Wayne. "When I pulled out and gave you my power of attorney I let everything slide off my shoulders on to yours. Is that all?"
"I banked pretty heavily from sales," Garth went on. "Under my own name, as it saved trouble and I didn't know when you'd show up. I drew out again, for the men's wages, for a few improvements and running expenses, for the other cattle I bought. I've got the vouchers, if you want to see them."
"I don't want to see them."
"There is still something left," Garth said, his voice careless, his eyes glancing up at Shandon and down again. "It's still in my name. About four thousand."
"Good boy," cried Wayne. "That's going to save me some trouble. Will you give me a check for it, Garth?"
"It's yours," Garth replied, going to look for pass book and check book. But when he returned he could not refrain from asking, "What are you going to do with it, Wayne?"
"Double it!" laughed Shandon. "Bet it on a horse race, my boy! But look here," seriously. "I want only five thousand. Counting the other fifteen hundred there's something over that. You've been working like a dog for a year, drawing just foreman's wages while you've been taking the owner's responsibilities. I'm going to shove the other five hundred down your throat as the rest of the unpaid wages due you, or a bonus or whatever you like to call it."
And as Garth's momentary stupefaction was followed by what threatened to be very profuse thanks, Shandon fled to the stable and Little Saxon.
Already word of the race to be run in the springtime, in June when the snows would be gone, had travelled up and down the country. Sledge Hume's money was in the hands of Charlie Granger at El Toyon, and the order signed by him to turn over the five thousand dollars to the man who came in first, himself or Wayne Shandon, containing the clause which he had insisted upon, making it clear that if only one man entered the race he was to take the money.
Five thousand dollars wagered on a single race; Red Reckless and Sledge Hume riding; Endymion, who had already shown those who knew him that for beauty and speed and endurance he was the peer of his aristocratic, thoroughbred sire and dam; Little Saxon, whom men knew yet only as a wild hearted colt being tamed by a man who knew horses and who was willing to lay five thousand on him against his brother; the course a ten mile sweep of mountain and valley, of broken trail and grassy meadow, leading from the high lands to the east of Bar L-M and Echo Creek, ending at the Bar L-M corrals; this one event was enough to draw the attention of men up and down the cattle country, in the mining towns and lumber camps. Word of it went everywhere; letters came to Wayne Shandon from other men who had horses, who suggested this, that and the other race, who sought to find men to cover their bets.
It would be an all day meet; the Bar L-M outfit would entertain generously; there would be barbecued beef; every one was welcome; big wagons would be busy a week beforehand bringing in enough food for a small army. Any man had the opportunity of entering his own horse with these provisos: this was to be a Western race in all essentials; the horse must be Western, born and bred, the man who owned it must ride his own horse. There would be no professional jockeys; there would be no bookmakers.
News of the race, before the winter had come, more than six months before the day set in June, had gone over the crest of the Sierra and appeared in the papers at Reno. It had flashed across telegraph wires to Sacramento; had been talk for a day in many a place where sporting men foregather in San Francisco. Men who had never heard of them before came to know of Sledge Hume and Wayne Shandon, of Endymion and Little Saxon. And still Little Saxon was but a half broken colt.
"It's all right," grunted Willie Dart to himself, kicking his heels from the top of the corral and watching his Noble Benefactor risking his life in the company of a great, belligerent red-bay horse. "It's all right, seeing I'm here. Suppose I wasn't, suppose I was still dodging cops on Broadway, then what? Then Sledgehammer Hume would put some death-on-rats in Hell Fire's hay, or pick Red off with a shot gun, and who cops onto the five thou? A man don't have to have a fortune teller for a mother to get wised up to that."
Little by little the proud spirited horse learned his lesson. He came to see that his destiny lay in the hands of the man who came out to him daily. He gave over trying to beat the man to death with his flying heels; he no longer sought to tear at him with bared teeth; he recognised that it was as futile to seek to hurl the man from his back as to break the strong cinch which held the saddle; that he might run until he killed himself, but that he could not run away from the man who rode him and laughed. He learned that in this world that had been so utterly free for him there was one single being who was his master in all things, whom he must obey. And, when obedience came, pleasure in that obedience followed, and trust and faith and love.
That year winter came in as it had not come to these mountains for twenty-seven years, early, unheralded and hard. The cattle and horses had not yet been moved down to the lower ranges when one day, in mid-afternoon, the air thickened, bursting black clouds drove up from the southwest, the forests rocked moaning and shuddering under the smashing impact of the sudden storm, the sun was lost in a darkness that grew impenetrable toward the time of dusk, and the skies opened to a downpour of rain. For upwards of an hour the great drops drove unceasingly into the dry ground while giant daggers of lightning stabbed at the earth that seemed to bellow its torment in reverberating roars. Then the slanting rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, the wind went howling through the forests and was gone, and in the stillness which ushered in the true night the snow began.
All night it snowed, steadily, without cease. The morning dawned wanly on a white world; distant peaks and ridges were blotted out in the grey, snow filled air. Men who were careless yesterday became to-day filled with an activity which was swift and tireless. In candlelight and lamplight they dressed hurriedly and made speedy breakfasts. This storm might be nothing but a warning of winter; it might be the first day of a snowfall that would continue for two weeks. In any event it was high time to have the cattle on the run to the lower valleys.
"Two days of this," grunted Big Bill as he kicked his way viciously through the snow already over ankle deep on the way to the stable, "an' the passes'll be so choked up we can't whoop the cow brutes through 'em. An' me, I ain't hankerin' after totin' a bawlin' calf under each arm, nuther."
All day long, upon the Bar L-M and the Echo Creek, men were riding deep into the sheltered ravines, bringing out the stock, heading the stragglers westward down the valleys, gathering the different herds into one on each ranch to crowd them out of the belt of hard winter. Many men rode many miles that day, changing their horses at noon, making a hasty meal when they could, riding again.
Always before this year the herds of the Bar L-M had been pushed across the bridge or made to swim the river where it was wide and shallow, and driven across a corner of the Echo Creek ranch by the most direct route out. But this year Wayne Shandon briefly gave new orders, telling his men to keep on the Bar L-M property as long as they could, then to throw the herds across the ridge to the south and along a harder, longer trail to the county road ten miles further west. He offered no explanation, his men asked none. It was but another indication to them of the thing which was already no secret, that there was some sort of serious trouble between Wayne Shandon and Martin Leland.
Wayne and Garth intended to stay that night at the range house, being the last two men to leave, after attending to the countless little things which must be done about a ranch before it is abandoned to the winter and solitude. They planned to follow the rest of the Bar L-M outfit in the morning.
Even Martin Leland who usually moved his stock early had been caught unprepared. The fine weather preceding the storm had tricked him; he had not planned the drive until two weeks yet. He, too, having worked with his men all day, having ridden the first half dozen miles with them, came back to spend the night at his home.
That afternoon, while the men of both ranges were doing two days' work in one, Willie Dart called upon Wanda. Mr. Dart made it a part of his business in life to be on good terms with every one. He ignored the contemptuous grunts of Wanda's father, and in speaking of him referred to him as, "My old pal, Mart." Martin tolerated him, Mrs. Leland was amused by him, Wanda welcomed him as coming from Wayne's home, as always a possible bearer of tidings from Wayne himself. And such he was to-day.
For there had been no time for signalling, the snow had veiled the cliffs across the miles, and Wayne must send word of his sudden necessary change of plans. So he entrusted a note to Mr. Dart, having first sealed it in its envelope and informed the carrier that if he pried into it the police in New York would learn by telegraph of the present whereabouts of Mr. Dart.
Wanda and Dart were alone in the big living room while Mrs. Leland was busied with Julia in making preparations within the house for the siege of winter. As she left the room Mr. Dart winked slyly at Wanda, tapped his breast pocket, winked the other eye and assumed the air of a man bearing secret and very mysterious messages. In due time he brought out the letter, the flap of the envelope showing so little sign of having been tampered with that it was not to be expected that the eager girl would note it. Mr. Dart afterwards admitted that he prided himself upon the appearance of that envelope, all things, including inclement weather, considered—and presented it with a whispered,
"Red wouldn't trust anybody with it but me. Say, he's some kid, ain't he, Wanda?"
Beaming on her like a cherub in checked suit and brilliant necktie, he approached a little nearer and whispered again,
"Me, I'll just mosey out on the porch while you flash your eyes over Red's handwrite. Delicacy's my other name, times like this."
Still beaming he winked again, still winking let himself silently out of the front door.
Considering that all Wayne Shandon had to write a letter about was to tell Wanda that he was hurrying out with the herds to-morrow, that when during the next few weeks he could get back he would signal with smoke from the cliffs above her cave, it must have taken him a long time to say it. Considering how little she had to read Wanda must have been very deliberate in reading Wayne's scrawl. At any rate, long before she had finished, Mr. Willie Dart had gone silently down the porch, peered in the kitchen window at Mrs. Leland and Julia, continued on to the door of Martin's study and let himself in. The door had been locked, at that, when Dart's beautiful fingers first touched it, and they had done what Mr. Dart himself termed "plying his profession."
"I ain't had a chance like this since I was three," Mr. Dart told himself contentedly. "Honest, I ain't. Now, if these nice old country gents think they can put over something with my old pal Red, and me not know just how they're figuring on the skinning party, they better wise up."
He closed the door silently, and any sound he made might have been that of a pin dropped on a thick carpet. He surveyed the room with eyes that missed nothing.
"I knew it," he smiled, as though at the sight of an old friend as he found the safe in the far corner of the room. "I heard your door shut the other day, old party, when I was chumming with Wanda and you and the rest of the combination was talking war talk. Not to waste time we'll begin with you."
It was an old safe, an old, old make and style, and Mr. Dart sighed and shook his head a little disappointedly as he knelt, brought out of his pockets a set of bright, new tools and set to work.
"Any time," he mused when the door swung open, "that they put a pal of mine out of the running they better get up-to-date."
AND SOLVES A FASCINATING MYSTERY
Riding furiously with the fury of the storm as though swept onward with it, looking the very spirit of the wintry season that is made of black nights and cold, bright days, a woman was hastening upon a jaded horse toward the Echo Creek ranch house from the direction of El Toyon and the railroad. She rode well, sitting straight in the heavy saddle, and she rode hard. When the horse stumbled or floundered in the loose snow she jerked angrily at the reins and cut sharply with her riding whip.
She entered the yard and rode up to the porch while Wanda was still deep in Wayne's letter, while Dart was forming his lips to a soft, silent whistle over a document which had passed from a drawer of the safe into his caressing white fingers. The woman dismounted quickly but a little stiffly as though from cold or fatigue, and fastening her horse's reins with numb, gloved fingers hastened up the steps to the living room door. She rapped loudly and Wanda, thinking that this was but a further evidence of the fact that one of Mr. Dart's names was Delicacy, called out, "Come in."
It was with a little start of surprise that Wanda saw her. A young woman, twenty-five perhaps, of that rare sort of personality that asserts itself in a flash. Exquisitely cloaked and furred, clad from tiny boots to cap in black, her hair black, her eyes large and luminous and black. Furs and cloak failed to hide the erect gracefulness of the slender form, the poise of which as well as the carriage of the head indicated an imperious disposition. The woman was undeniably beautiful, her loveliness the delicately featured, perfectly chiselled beauty that is called classic. The fur cap upon the small head was snow encrusted and sat upon her cold beauty like a coronet; under it the escaping tendrils of jet black hair were fashioned by the cold into a glistening mesh of silver threads.
"This is the Leland place, isn't it?" was her abrupt greeting.
"Yes," Wanda replied, not yet quite recovered from the surprise of the sudden vision.
"You are Wanda Leland, I suppose?" the cool, deep-throated voice went on as the black eyes flashed critically from the girl's face to her house dress, her pumps, the letter in her hands, her face again.
"Yes," Wanda repeated quietly. She disliked the little air this woman had about her, the subtle hint of patronage and superiority, but her natural wish to be hospitable to a stranger driven hither by the storm made her seek to ignore this first impression.
"I'm Claire Hazleton. I've just ridden in from El Toyon. My horse is done up, I'm afraid, or I shouldn't have troubled you."
Wanda's quick, ready smile flashed out at this and she came forward, putting out her hand.
"I'm glad that you did come," she said cordially. "You must be tired to death and simply frozen. If you'll come up to the fire and take off your things I'll make some tea or coffee."
Claire Hazleton's slim gloved hand accepted Wanda's, touching it lightly.
"You are too kind," she began formally. "If it wouldn't be too much bother—"
"Nonsense," laughed Wanda. "If you'll make yourself cozy at the fire I'll be back in a moment."
Hurrying out, Wanda had a glimpse of Willie Dart standing on the porch, his hands in his pockets, his big innocent eyes beaming approvingly at the snow and the sky and the world in general. As she went on her way to the kitchen, Mr. Dart, having in turn looked approvingly at her, shifted his gaze to the panting saddle horse standing with drooping head at the steps, and then, putting his hands under his coat tails, he returned to the living room. Claire Hazleton had just removed her outer wraps and was warming her hands at the fire. Mr. Dart, noticing the cluster of rings on her fingers, flapped his coat tails up and down and closed the door behind him with his elbow.
"Say," he began pleasantly, "it's fierce outside, ain't it? Talk about a slush party. Ain't this a ring tailed dandy?"
She turned upon him slowly and bestowed upon him a long stare, frankly curious. Then she laughed.
"It certainly is a ring tailed dandy," she admitted musically. "You aren't Mr. Leland, are you?"
Dart laughed too, his amusement apparently as genuine as hers, and entirely unabashed by the unconcealed appraisal of her glance at him.
"You're joshing," he retorted, coming closer so that while he could look at her he could turn his coat tails to the fire. "There's as much difference between me and my old pal Mart as there is between you and a picture of a little country girl picking buttercups."
"You don't think I look the part?" she smiled.
"You?" He favoured her with the full measure of his supreme impudence as he looked her over. "You're just built to play the queen's part in a tragedy show on Broadway. After the first night there'd be just one theatre doing business."
She frowned quickly, her eyes darkening as they had when she struck with her whip at her tired horse. Then she shrugged her shoulders and laughed again.
"You're very flattering," she said in a way which made Dart look at her sharply and which for a very brief time left him a little uncertain.
"Me?" he said. "You wrong me, lady. Honest you do. I'm sired by a gentleman who was a Baptist minister and who instilled in his only son if you lie once you'll do it some more and then you'll get caught. Say, seeing Wanda ain't here to do the knockdown stunt, I'm Dart, Mr. Willie Dart, to command."
He bobbed her a bow, accompanied the ceremony with a little flap of the coat tails, and all the while did not shift his round, inquisitive eyes from her face.
"Being acquainted now," he went on when a little pause assured him that she was not going to respond with an exchange of names, "just make yourself to home, won't you? I'll duck in and tell Wanda you're here. And," merely as an afterthought, "what name will I say, lady?"
"Don't bother," she replied coolly. "She knows I'm here."
"Does she? She hasn't been expecting you, has she?"
"No." Miss Hazleton's interest in the little man had evidently died a sudden death, and her one concern now seemed to get herself warm and dry.
"She's one great little kid, Wanda is, ain't she?" he ran on, totally unaffected by the significance of the young woman's back whose graceful curves were not lost to his admiring eyes.
"If you say so she must be," came the calm answer. "I never saw her before to-day."
"And you don't know old Mart?" She did not know Wanda, he surmised, she had wondered if he were Leland, then it must be Mrs. Leland she had come to see. "Say," he continued, "maybe Wanda couldn't find Mamma Leland! I'll just slip in and break the news. Gee, won't she be tickled to see you, you coming unexpected like this?"
"Really, Mr. Dart," she told him crisply, "you needn't take the trouble. Mrs. Leland wouldn't be the least bit glad to see me as she doesn't know me. And if you haven't discovered the fact already I might as well tell you that I am eminently capable of managing my own affairs."
Mr. Dart's silent whistle came very near being audible. But he answered in a voice which was meant to assure her that his sensitive nature had not been hurt and that his admiration had merely been stimulated.
"That's me," he said brightly. "Give me the dame every time that makes her own play and don't yell, 'Help' if she sticks a pin in her finger. Them doll-babies some guys go dippy over don't qualify for the finals with me."
But Mr. Dart was puzzled. She had ridden here through this storm, she had come all the way from El Toyon, for he had not been inattentive while he had been just outside the door before Wanda left the room, and she did not know a single person on the ranch. The very reason for her presence here was a challenge to Dart's peculiar temperament.
"Tell you what I'll do," he resumed, "I'll take that skate of yours down to the barn and throw some hay into him. He looks like it would do him good in case the shock don't undermine his system."
He made his hesitant way toward the door, his pride a little wounded at being defeated in the initial skirmish, his confident optimism looking forward eagerly to a more skilful attack. And then a word from Miss Hazleton brought him back to the charge.
"Don't trouble to take the saddle off," she said without turning. "I shall be riding on as soon as I have my tea."
Riding on? Where? The very course she had come pointed at one place.
"It's quite a ways to Red's," he said quickly. "You better take it easy and rest up a bit."
"Red's?" she condescended to ask.
"Sure. Shandon's, you know. You're headed for the Bar L-M, ain't you? Say, I'm going back that way myself pretty soon. Suppose you come along with me? I got a cart. It ain't much to look at but anyhow it beats pounding saddle leather. We can lead your skate, if you want to."
And rather to Dart's surprise she answered promptly,
"Thank you. That will be better. But in any case don't unsaddle. And when you come in will you bring the little bag strapped behind the saddle?"
Wanda returned then, bringing the tea and a hastily prepared lunch. Dart winked at her as he went out. He led the shivering horse at a trot to the barn.
"Now," he grunted in a mournful tone that spoke of disappointment and hinted at disgust, "wouldn't you think, to look at her, that dame had more stuff in her head than to do a trick like that?"
For the little black bag was locked and the key was gone, and the lock was a thing to make Mr. Dart sigh and shake his head as he had done over Martin's safe.
"I'll get so used to turning baby tricks," he mused, "I won't be able to do a real man's work. Well, it can't be helped when a man's putting in time in a place like this. Now, Lady Clamshell, we'll take a peep and see if your baggage—"
The bag was open, its contents rifled by slim, white fingers that seemed, each one, endowed with a brain of its own. In an incredibly short time various negligible feminine articles had been examined and replaced very carefully and exactly, a handkerchief without so much as a laundry mark, a silver vanity set with no monogram, and then came the reward to Mr. Dart's curiosity. It was a card case half filled with calling cards.
Mr. Dart did a thing he had rarely done in his life. He swore. He said:
"Well, I'll be damned!"
And being alone, speaking confidentially to himself, he may have meant it. He looked as though he did.
"You are very kind, Miss Leland," the new-comer was saying quietly. "I should like to accept your hospitality further. It has been a pleasure to meet you, I am sure. But you will infer from my being abroad at all at a time like this that my errand is urgent. I must be going immediately."
Mr. Dart came in at this juncture, his expression void of all emotion except a deep, unhidden admiration which embraced the two women, both of whom he felt honoured in including in the list of his friends.
"Miss Hazleton," began Wanda, "I didn't introduce you to Mr. Dart."
"He did," replied the other briefly.
"Sure," supplemented Dart. He handed the black bag to its owner and asked casually, "You're strong for hitting the pike right away?"
"If you are ready."
"Right-o, Miss Hazleton," he answered, pronouncing the name as though he enjoyed the sound of it. "I came over on some hurry-up business," with a sly look at Wanda that brought a little flush to her cheeks, "and I didn't unhook. Old Bots is pawing the earth and snorting his eagerness to help out. Say the word and we're off."
Involuntarily Wanda showed her surprise at the arrangement. It was the first word she had had of their way lying together.
"The lady's going over to the Bar L-M," Dart remarked as he observed Wanda's look. "She's a friend of Red's."
"Oh," said Wanda.
She strove immediately to act and speak as though there were nothing unusual in the situation. Miss Hazleton put on her coat and furs again without volunteering further information, while Dart hurried away for his own cart and her horse. Wanda accompanied them to the porch, saw them seated and starting and then returned to the house with a little hurt feeling in her heart which she knew was foolish but which she could not drive out. If Claire Hazleton and Wayne Shandon were upon such intimate terms that she made this trip to see him, it was a little strange that Wayne had never so much as mentioned her name to her.
"Wait a minute," cried Dart, jerking his horse up short before they had gone fifty yards from the house. "I forgot my gloves."
He shoved the reins into his companion's hands, jumped down and running back burst in bright faced and eager upon Wanda, startling her with the sudden unexpectedness of his return. With his finger upon his lips, his air surcharged with mystery, he came close to her.
"Have you wised up?" he whispered. "Got next to who the mysterious fairy is?"
"She's Miss Claire Hazleton," said Wanda a little stiffly and a bit puzzled.
"Rats!" grunted Mr. Dart putting much eloquence Into the monosyllable. "That's a bum monniker out of a French love story. It's the Roosian princess. It's Helga, that's who it is!"
He slipped a little engraved calling card into her hand, winked into her amazed eyes, drew a pair of gloves out of his hip pocket, crumpled them in his hand and hastened back to the cart.
Wanda stared a moment at the card. Then she flung it from her and with blazing eyes watched the flames in the fireplace lick at it.
"WHERE'S THAT TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND? WHAT'S THE ANSWER?"
The little clock in Wayne Shandon's room maintained stoutly in the face of the gathering gloom outside, in defiance of the lighted lamp upon the table, that it was still an hour before sunset. The snow was still falling steadily, thickly, swept here and there into shifting mounds, choking the mountain passes, robing trees and fence posts and buildings, each feathery flake adhering where it struck softly as though it had been a gummed wafer.
"Garth and I will have to get out to-morrow," Shandon muttered, drawing off his heavy coat and tossing it to the chair across the room, "or we'll have to beat it out on snowshoes—I wonder what's keeping Dart?"
There came a rap at the front door and Shandon, supposing that already his question was answered, called, "Come in."
"You never can tell what that little devil will do next," he grunted. "Snoop into a man's private business every time he gets the chance and then stand outside knocking at the door in a day like this. Come in."
Then, when the knocking came again, louder, insistent and imperative, he realised that there was the bare possibility that the thumb latch had caught and, crossing the room he jerked the door open.
"Is this Mr. Shandon?"
The cool, confident voice though a woman's was not Wanda's, and Shandon realised that he had been a fool to let his heart leap as it had when his eyes made out through the murkiness that it was a woman.
"Yes," he answered, wondering.
"May I come in?" she asked a little impatiently. "I have come a long way to see you."
Wondering more than ever he threw the door wide open, showed her the way into the living room and lighted a lamp. There was no fire in the room but she went quite naturally to the fireplace. He glanced at her sharply, knew that he had never seen her before for he would have remembered her, understood that she was a woman of the cities, and said,
"Are you very cold? Just a minute and I'll have a fire going. I came in only a moment before I heard your knock."
She did not speak until he had gathered an armful of wood from the box at the side of the fireplace and had flung it upon the blaze that a match had started from a bit of paper and some pitch pine. Nor did she seem in haste to speak even then when he stood across the hearth looking at her. But not for a second had her approving eyes left him; no opportunity had they lost to watch the man's face intently.
"Where did you come from in all this storm?" he asked curiously.
"Remotely, from New York. Immediately from El Toyen."
"Lord!" he ejaculated. "You must be dead. I'll get you something hot, some coffee. We haven't any tea, I'm afraid."
She laughed coolly, evidently quite at home with him.
"If a man came in, frozen stiff, would you offer him a cup of tea?"
"What do you mean?" He had started toward the kitchen, and stopped.
"I mean brandy, if you've got any. It would do me a lot of good. Wanda Leland just poured some tea down me and I didn't want to shock her."
Wayne stood frowning at her a moment, a question on his lips. Then he went to the kitchen and got a bottle and a glass. She had drawn a chair close up to the fire when he returned and was leaning back in it luxuriously, her feet thrust out to the blaze.
"Thanks," she said, taking the glass he handed her. "I am drinking to our better acquaintance."
She set the glass down upon the arm of her chair, half emptied, and smiled up at him.
"I want a good long talk if you can spare the time. Can you?"
"Of course," he said briefly.
"It is my particular desire that no one but yourself hears what I have to say."
"No one is here except Garth and myself. And Garth hasn't come in from the corrals yet."
"Excellent." Her black eyes flashed from him to the various rude appointments of the room, flashed back to him. "I am Helga Strawn," she said abruptly.
He repeated the name after her in surprise:
"Yes. Perhaps you guess right away what has brought me West, to you first of all?"
"No," he said. "I don't think that I do."
"Then I'll tell you. That's what I am here for. Don't begin to think that I saw a picture of you somewhere and fell in love with it."
The finely chiselled lips, too faultlessly perfect at any time to be warmly womanly, were suddenly hard. Her eyes had become brilliant, twin spots of colour came into her cheeks.
"At least you remember my name?"
"Helga Strawn? Yes, I remember it. You learned from a mutual acquaintance that I was in New York some time ago. You wrote me then. You are a cousin of Sledge Hume."
"Not exactly a cousin," she corrected him. "I am not so proud of the relationship as to wish to make it closer than it is. But that does not matter. You remember also why I wrote you?"
"Yes. You said that yourself and Hume had inherited equal interests in the Dry Lands. That through letters Hume had persuaded you to sell your interest to him. After you had sold you began to think that he had japped you. You wanted to know from me what the property was actually worth."
"I am glad that you remember. You answered my letter. You told me that you had always considered the land hardly worth paying taxes on."
"If I asked you now, that same question, what would you say?"
He hesitated. The Dry Lands were no whit more valuable to-day than they had been last year. But if the scheme Hume was engineering went through it would be a different matter.
"You have already sold your interest, given the deed, haven't you, Miss Strawn? What difference does it make?" he asked bluntly.
"What if I have?" she countered coolly. "I am not the sort of woman, Mr. Shandon, to sit with my hands in my lap when a man has done a piece of sharp business with me. I needed the money and like a fool I sold to Hume. And now I know as well as I know anything that he didn't pay me a tenth of what the property was worth. Yes, I have given the deed. You think that I am a fool again to come clear across the continent upon a matter that went out of my hands a year ago!" She laughed, her laugh reminding him unpleasantly of the man of whom they were talking. "You see, you don't know me yet."
"I don't see just how I can be of service to you," he suggested.
"I'll try to be explicit. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hume and yet I think that I could write a very correct character sketch of the gentleman. Egotism and selfishness, two things in most men, just one in Sledge Hume! He is shrewd and hard and his god is gold. Am I right?"
"Hume is hardly an intimate acquaintance of mine."
She laughed softly, twisting the brandy glass slowly in her white fingers.
"I know enough of the Hume blood," she said presently, "to make a close guess at the man's character. We are not related, even distantly, for nothing, Mr. Shandon. My mother was a Hume," she added coolly, her manner again reminding the man strangely of Hume himself. "You see, he chose the wrong woman when he cheated me. It's going to be diamond cut diamond now."
Shandon looked at the girl curiously, falling to see what mad hope she could have of regaining rights that were deeded away a year ago, falling as well to find a reason for her coming all these miles to make a confidant of him.
"I usually go about things in my own way," she said after one of her brief pauses. "What I have to say I'll say as it comes to me. In case your cousin Garth returns before I have done you can send him away upon any pretext you choose. Tell him we want to talk privately; that will do as well as anything. Smoke, if you want to," as she saw his eyes go to the mantelpiece where an old black pipe lay. "Maybe it will make you patient during my harangue."
Wayne got his pipe and, lighting it, sat upon the edge of the table looking down at her through the smoke.
"Six months ago," she went on, "I realised that Hume had underpaid me. Why?" She shrugged her shoulders. "I knew his breed. If he offers a dollar for a thing it's worth ten. I made investigations through an agent who came up to Dry Valley from San Francisco. He turned in his bill on time and that was about all. He was an ordinary man and consequently a fool. But, blind as a bat himself, he showed me a little light that set me thinking. A few days ago I came out myself." She snapped her fingers. "It didn't take me that long to get to the bottom of the whole thing."
"The scheme Hume is promoting on the quiet to put water on the Dry Lands. The water is to come from your river. Are you in on the deal too?"
Her question was as sudden as a sword thrust.
"No," he answered.
"Have they made you an offer for the water right?"
"That's funny." She frowned thoughtfully at him a moment, saying in a barely audible tone as though she were thinking aloud, "You don't look as though you were lying. Well, you expect an offer, don't you?"
"And when it comes, coming from Hume, you realise that he'll offer a very small fraction of what it is worth to him?"
"I suppose so. That's business."
"And, above all things in the world, Sledge Hume is a business man! Well, I won't ask what you'd do when the offer came, as you'd say that it was none of my affair. I've seen Ruf Ettinger and learned all he knows."
He did not answer; he had suddenly resolved to see the drift of Helga Strawn's thoughts before he did a great deal of talking.
"I have learned," came another of her abrupt thrusts, "that you and Hume are about as friendly as a cat and a dog."
He merely looked at her enquiringly, drawing thoughtfully at his pipe. She smiled, turned from him back to the fire, settling a little more comfortably in her chair.
"Hume is a crook." She said it calmly, dispassionately, positively. "It is in his blood. He couldn't help it if he tried. He isn't the kind to try. The deal he put over with me may have been nothing but clever business. On the other hand, considering that I was a relative, considering that there was going to be plenty of boodle for everybody, some people might say that there was an element of dishonesty in it. But what I am getting at is that the man in unscrupulous. Now, he's in the biggest business deal of his life. Chances in that sort of thing for crooked work are many. Ergo, Mr. Shandon, it's a fair bet that starting with a crooked deal he has gone on playing a crooked game. Do you begin to see why I'm here?"
"Blackmail?" he said bluntly.
"Yes," she said coolly. "There's no use quarrelling over a name."
"If you imagine that I know anything about the man's private history—"
"You've quarrelled openly with him. Everybody knows about it. What was the reason for your quarrel?"
"Really, Miss Strawn—-"
"Why can't you talk to me as if I were a man?" she flared out at him, the sudden heat from a woman who had been ice a moment ago taking him by surprise. "I'm not dragging my sex into this like a buckler to hide behind. Why can't you say it's none of my damned business, if you feel that way about it?"
"I shouldn't put it quite so strong," he replied. "If you will go on and show me how I can be of any service to you, anything in my line—"
"Consequently excluding blackmail!" she laughed, her mood like ice again. "When you quarrelled with Hume a year ago you called him a crook, didn't you?"
"Your investigations seem to have been made very painstakingly," he countered.
"For one of your reputation you are surprisingly noncommittal," she said. "Will you tell me this: So far as you know is there a woman in Sledge Hume's life?"
"So far as I know there is not. He doesn't impress me as the sort of man to lose either his heart or his head over a woman."
"That sort of man," she replied swiftly, "very often surprises people who think that they understand human nature, and don't! Now I come to one of my reasons in coming to see you. I saw you one day at the Grand Central Station with a friend of mine, a Mr. Maddox. I was uncertain whether he had pointed me out to you or not, told you who I was. Did he?"
"No. I should have remembered."
"Thank you. That's the first pretty thing you've said! Well, no harm is done in making sure. I'm making sure of every little point as I go along, Mr. Shandon. I didn't want there to be a possibility of any one here knowing who I am. It is my own business and I hope that I am not asking overmuch if I request you not to tell any one that I am Helga Strawn."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"If you don't want Hume to know you I most certainly shall not seek to find or take advantage of an opportunity to tell him."
"Thank you again. Now, for the other part of my business with you. You are in a position to stand pat and by just doing nothing smash Sledge Hume's little game all to flinders. He's counted on you, he's made sure in some way I don't know. But I am going to know before long. And I'm going to get Sledge Hume just where I want him! How? Wait and see. I'm going to get back the property he cheated me out of. How? I don't know and I don't care. And then—"
She rose swiftly, her eyes blazing, her head lifted triumphantly as though already she had met the success she had set out to find.
"And then, Wayne Shandon, you and I and Ruf Ettinger can take into our hands the thing that Sledge Hume has already half created for us! There is a fortune in it for every one of us."
"I've told Ruf Ettinger already—" he began.
The door opened suddenly and Mr. Dart came into the room.
"Say, Red," he began with an important air, "I want to see you a minute, private. Hazel will excuse us, won't you?" with a rare smile and an abbreviated bow after Mr. Dart's best manner.
"Hazel?" frowned Shandon.
"Sure," grinned Dart. "We got chummy as twins riding over, didn't we? Come on, Red. This here is urgent."
"It will have to wait, Dart. Miss—"
"Hazleton," prompted Helga.
"Sure," put in Dart. "Her uncle used to know my aunt in Poughkeepsie. Come on, Red."
"Dart," cried Shandon, "you get out! We are busy."
Dart went slowly back to the door, to the surprise of Shandon who knew so well the little man's tenacity.
"Oh, well," he said mournfully from across the room. "Only Wanda said—"
"You will excuse me a moment?" Wayne asked hurriedly. Dart, already outside was grinning broadly.
"What is it?" queried Shandon.
"Whatever it is it'll keep until we get where we can talk," was the dogged answer. "There's nobody in the bunk house. Come on."
He hastened down the steps, Wayne following him. Only when they were in the bunk house, the door closed, the lamp lighted, did Dart speak.
"First thing," he said abruptly, "Hazel's name begins with an H, but she spells it Helga!"
"You little weasel! Well, what about it? And what about Miss Leland?"
"Wanda's part will keep. Gee, Red, she's some swell dame, that Egyptian skirt, take it from me! She's got Macbeth's frau of the fairy tale faded to a finish, ain't she?"
"Look here, Dart . . ."
"It's cold weather," interrupted Dart. "Keep your undershirt on, Red. When your brother Archie mortgaged the Bar L-M . . ."
"What fool's nonsense are you talking, Dart?" demanded Shandon. "Arthur never mortgaged—"
"Uhuh. I thought you didn't know about it. Now I'm here to tell you something you ought to know. I guess the Weak Sister forgot to tell you about it. Archie mortgaged the Bar L-M, he socked a plaster worth twenty-five thousand dollars on it, the day before somebody put him out. Get that?"
Wayne stared at him wonderingly. Suddenly he shot out his two hands and gripped Dart's shoulders, jerking the little man toward him threateningly.
"What's your game, you little crook? You lie to me and I'll come so close to killing you we'll both be sorry."
"Listen to that now," sighed Dart. "When one pal tries to wise another up—"
"Talk fast," said Shandon sternly. "What are you talking about?"
"Give me a chance to breathe and I'll spit it out. Your brother mortgaged the outfit for twenty-five thousand. You never heard about it. Some guy who was wise croaked him. Where's the twenty-five thousand? What's the answer?"
"Good God!" muttered Shandon.
Dart, suddenly released, moved a little further away and smoothed his coat collar.
"The mortgage was held by a man I used to call a pal," he volunteered further. "I don't call him that any longer. I mean old Mart."
"Martin Leland! You mean to tell me that Martin Leland held a mortgage over the Bar L-M for twenty-five thousand dollars and that I never heard of it?"
"Yep," answered Dart lightly. "And three months ago he foreclosed. Funny, ain't it?"
"It's impossible. It's one of your fool lies, Dart."
"When I tell a lie, Red, I don't tell that kind. The whole thing was recorded nice and proper. All you got to do is go to the courthouse and look it up. I'd go for you, only the jail's in the basement and jails always give me a cold. Or, you can go ask the Weak Sister. He'll know about it. You gave him your power of attorney, didn't you? Oh, he'll know, all right."
The two men stared at each other fixedly, the eyes of one frowning and penetrating, those of the other round and innocent.
"I believe you are telling the truth," said Shandon slowly. "I don't see why you'd lie about a thing like this— How do you know anything about it?" he asked suddenly.
"How do I know Hazel's name is Helga?" smiled Dart. "There's tricks in every trade, Red."
"If this thing is true—"
"Go talk to the Weak Sister," said Dart briefly.
Wayne swung about and without reply went swiftly down toward the corrals. Suddenly he stopped and came back.
"You didn't tell me what Miss Leland said," he said shortly.
Dart laughed in great amusement.
"She didn't say anything. She's sore as a goat, though, Red. This Helga business sort of got on her nerves."
Then Shandon went hurriedly toward the corrals.
"Me," mused Dart, on his way to entertain Miss Helga Strawn during what might be a period of lonely waiting for her, "I'm almost chicken-hearted enough to feel sorry for the Weak Sister!"
There was a peculiar sternness in Wayne Shandon's voice that made his cousin start in a way which, to Shandon's taut nerves, seemed instantly a sign of guilt. Conway finished the work he was doing, snapped the heavy padlock into the log chain, which fastened the double doors of the small building where odds and ends were stored during the winter, and came on through the snow, smiting his hands together to get the chilled blood running.
"Hello, Wayne," he answered. "What's up?"
"That's what I want to know," briefly. "What do you know about a mortgage on the Bar L-M?"
It was too dark for Shandon to see the other's face clearly. He noticed that Garth hesitated just a second before answering.
"What do you mean?" Conway's voice sought to be confident and failed. Shandon's fist snapped shut involuntarily. It was almost, he thought, as if Garth had answered him directly.
"I mean just this: Did you know that the Bar L-M was mortgaged to Martin Leland for twenty-five thousand dollars?"
Garth Conway would not have been himself but some very different man had there not been a considerable pause before he replied.
"Yes," he said at last, a little doggedly. "I knew it."
"Arthur mortgaged it the day he was killed? Or the day before?"
"And the mortgage was foreclosed three months ago?"
"And you never told me about it! Why?"
"I should have done so, I suppose," Garth said nervously. "But— Well, the first thing you hit out for the East. You weren't attending to business then, Wayne. You wrote me to take charge of everything, not to bother you with ranch affairs. You gave me a power of attorney—"
"I've been back half a year," said Shandon shortly. "I've been attending to business. Why haven't you told me?"
Conway drew back a quick step as though he feared from his cousin's harsh voice that physical violence would follow.
"I didn't think of it," he said weakly, and at the same time with a pitiful attempt at defiance.
The words came distinctly enunciated, cold and hard, a little pause separating the two syllables so that each cut like a stab.
"Look here, Wayne," Garth said stiffly, "if you, who have never done a single thing seriously in your life want to get sore because I have neglected a matter of no pressing importance—"
"Good Lord!" cried Wayne. "No pressing importance! You'd handle my business for me, keep all knowledge of a foreclosure from me, until the year of redemption had passed? You'd let Martin Leland close me out, would you? You and Hume and Leland would take the water from the river. Good God! I never thought this sort of thing of you or Leland! You'd all get rich by smashing me, and then you, you two-faced little cur, would buy the Bar L-M back from Leland for nothing, with money you'd taken from Arthur and me! Why, you petit [Transcriber's note: petty?] larceny sneak, I don't know why I am talking with you instead of slapping your dirty face!"
"If you will talk reasonably—"
"Talk reasonably? You're damned right I will! Why did Arthur borrow twenty-five thousand dollars to begin with? What went with it? Who got it?"
"I don't know what he wanted it for," snapped Garth. "I don't know what went with it. I suppose the man who murdered him robbed him, too."
"You don't mean he had a sum like that with him in cash?"
"Yes. He insisted upon it. I was with Leland when the money was turned over."
"And you—forgot—to tell me that!"
Conway, though his lips moved, made no audible reply. Wayne stood staring at him a moment, his face white with passion. Suddenly he cried out in a voice shaking with fury as he lifted one hand high above his head and brought it smashing down into his open palm.
"Get off of the place!" he shouted. "Sneak back to Leland; go whimper about Sledge Hume's legs. Tell Leland that I said that you are a damned scoundrel and that he's another! Tell him that I said that I am going to make the whole thieving pack of you eat out of my hand before I let up on you. And now, for God's sake, go!"
He whirled and went back to the house with long strides. He flung wide the door, and as he came swiftly to the fireplace, his face still white and hard, he thrust out his hand to Helga Strawn, grasping hers as though it had been a man's.
"I'm with you," he said crisply. "I'll see Ruf Ettinger myself to-morrow."
Her eyes which had been frowning during Dart's latest attempt to be entertaining, grew suddenly brilliant, her cheeks flushed happily.
"Dart," Wayne, continued, turning to the little man who had begun nodding his head approvingly when Wayne's shoulder had struck the door and who was still nodding, "you've done me a good turn to-night. I'm not ungrateful. But Miss—"
"Hazleton," prompted Dart.
"—will have to be going right away and I want to talk with her alone."
"Sure," agreed Dart. "I'll get my book and go down to the bunk house. I'm reading a swell story about a guy named Jupiter and a skirt named—"
For the first and only time on record Willie Dart stopped his flow of words because of the look he saw on a man's face. He went out snatching his book from the table as he passed. On his way to the bunk house he stopped long enough to shake his head and rub his chin.
"I'm giving odds, ten to one," he reflected, "that the Weak Sister don't loaf around here all night counting snowflakes."
"Something has happened, Mr. Shandon," Helga said sharply.
Shandon laughed shortly and picked up his pipe.
"A great deal has happened," he told her. "I've been a fool and an overgrown baby long enough. Let's get down to business. You can't stay here all night."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"For want of a chaperon, I suppose? I'm not worried about what people say or think, Mr. Shandon. And, besides, there's no place to go."
"You can't stay, any way," he answered a little roughly. "You can get back to the Leland place. They'll keep you over night. Now, let's get this thing straight. You hope to get back your property from Hume?"
Swiftly their roles had changed; he was dominant now, he asked his question in a tone that demanded an answer and she gave the answer.
"I can't tell you definitely. If you'll come to me in two weeks or a month I can tell you. For one thing, Hume is a man, I am a woman."
"You are going to try to make him fall in love with you?"
"Other men have done it," she said indifferently.
"Other men are not Sledge Hume. But that is your end of it. I am going to tie up Ruf Ettinger and any other stragglers I can get my hands on. If you can get back the property we'll take you in. We'll form a company, we'll pool our interests. We'll force these other fellows to sell to us at our own figure, by the Lord! I've got the water!"
"If I could force Sledge Hume to sell his inherited interest to me," she cried, "if I could make him sell to me as I sold to him, for a wretched twenty-five thousand dollars—"
"What!" he broke in excitedly. "How much did Hume pay you?"
"Twenty-five thousand. Why?" curiously.
"I remember the date exactly."
She told him. It was barely two weeks after the death of Arthur Shandon.
Sudden suspicion in Wayne Shandon's brain had sprung full grown into positive certainty.
"If you can't get your property back one way," was the last thing he said, "I can get it for you in another. Helga Strawn, you had better leave Sledge Hume to me."
SHANDON TAKES HIS STAND
Dart had been quite right concerning the actions of Garth Conway. It hardly required a clairvoyant mother for any man who knew both Conway and Wayne Shandon to predict the haste with which Conway saddled and left the Bar L-M, nor the direction he went.
"Old Mart's going to sleep restless to-night," mused Dart, to whom the adventures of a guy named Jupiter, and a skirt who shall be nameless, no longer appealed. "Them haymakers don't know enough to walk crooked and cover their tracks the same time. Now with Red on the war path, and me shaping his play right along—"
He grew deeply thoughtful over the delightful possibilities unfolding to his highly coloured imagination. There was going to be something doing now that would put an edge to this dull life. With what was equivalent to a lining up of forces and an open declaration of hostilities, with Red on the one hand pitted against the trio whom Dart called the Haymakers, with a murder mystery to untangle, a robbery to solve, and—not to be forgotten—Little Saxon guarded through the winter months so that a winning horserace could be run in the spring, Mr. Dart looked forward happily to a very busy time. Then there was the Dry Valley irrigation scheme of which his limited knowledge must be enlarged immediately, in order that he might "scrape up a few beans and get them down while the game was wide open." And there was Helga Strawn.
"I wouldn't have missed this here," said Mr. Dart solemnly, nodding his head at a picture in his book of a lady without arms or superfluous clothing, "not for the boodle of a U. S. senator."
He went to the bunk house door in time to see Garth riding out of the corral, his horse floundering awkwardly in the drifts that were steadily piling higher. Dart spat contemptuously.
"A measly little cur," he declared softly. "Crooked just because he ain't got the guts to go straight. Them's the worst kind. They get scared stiff and shoot you when you come in late, thinking you're a second-story artist, and then they're sorry. Chances are he's repenting right now and wishing he was dead and by morning he'll be doing the knife act some more."
While Dart meditated, planned and philosophised, Wayne Shandon prepared a quick meal for Helga Strawn.
"I know you're done up already," he said, "but it can't be helped. You've got to get back to the Echo Creek to-night, if for no other reason because it may be the last chance you'll have to get out at all."
"You mean the snow?"
"Yes. A horse can carry you through to-night; to-morrow, if this keeps up, the poor brute would have his work cut out to get through alone. If you'll help yourself and see that your clothes are good and dry I'll go out and get the horses ready."
"Horses? You are going with me?"
"No," he said emphatically. "I haven't been going to Mr. Leland's home for a long time. After what I have learned to-night I suppose that I'll never go there again. I am going to send Dart with you."
"What have you learned?" she asked quickly. "You mean what I have told you?"
"No. It is something which I am afraid I can't talk about just yet, Miss Strawn. Now, if you will excuse me a minute?"
He went down to the stable, saw that both Helga's horse and Old Bots had a feeding of barley, and fed his own saddle animal.
"I'll have to fight my way out on webs tomorrow," he mused. "I can lead you until we get across the ridge where the snow will be lighter."
Then he went to Dart in the bunk house.
"Dart," he called abruptly, "you'd better come up to the house and get something to eat. Then you've got to get ready to ride."
"Ride?" demanded Dart, a little anxiously. "You mean me and Old Bots and the chariot?"
"You can't make it," Shandon told him positively. "I don't know how you managed to get back from the Echo Creek with the cart. You'll have to go on horseback now, whether you like it or not."
"Where am I going, Chief?"
"To the Leland's. Miss Hazleton is going back and I want you to go with her. You'd have to go in the morning anyway and it will be easier if you go right away. And I want you to do something for me."
"Love's little messenger again?" grinned Dart. "Gee, Red, I'm turning into a regular carrier pigeon."
"I am going to write a short note to Miss Leland," Shandon went on quietly. "I want you to give it to her to-night. And I don't want anybody to see you do it. Will you do that for me?"
"Did I ever turn a pal down?" reproachfully. "But, say, Red; I'm just healed up good from my ride in here last summer. Can't I walk?"
Shandon laughed and the two men hurried together back to the house. Helga, who was still eating, looked up at them with frank curiosity as they came in. Her eyes rested longest upon Dart; her contempt for him had passed or else she had resolved to hide it and appear friendly. Through the brief meal he strove constantly to be entertaining, and his little sallies which had formerly elicited nothing beyond her silent contempt now provoked her ready laughter.
"It ain't a little jolt of brandy that made the difference, either," Dart informed himself thoughtfully in the midst of an enthusiastic recital of the gallant way in which his pal, Red, had saved him from a horrible death in some wonderful land whose geographical location he failed to make perfectly clear. "She's wise I'm the gent with a noodle full of things she's dying to know. Red ain't told her what I told him. We're sure going to have an awful chummy time on our jingle bell party back to old Mart's."
And he went on with his tale until Wayne returning from the kitchen stopped him.
Shandon had written his note and gave it to Dart as the two men went out to saddle the horses. Ten minutes later Helga Strawn and her guide left the Bar L-M. During the long ride, although Dart seemed the most ingenuous of creatures, Helga Strawn obtained no satisfactory report of the news which he had brought and which had so obviously steeled Shandon's will.
An hour before they came to the Echo Creek the snow ceased abruptly and it began to rain.
When at last they reached the ranch house the girl was clinging wearily to the horn of her saddle, drenched to the skin, her face pinched and white and drawn from cold and the hardest day's physical work her woman's body had ever buffeted through. When Dart glanced at her in the lamplight of the living room he filed a swift mental note of the fact that what Helga Strawn set out to do she was very likely to accomplish. For her eyes, their brilliancy undimmed, their calculating penetration unaltered, told of a fighting spirit which no bodily fatigue could touch.
There had been only two lights burning in the house; one in Martin's private room from which came the voices of Garth Conway and Leland himself; one in Wanda's bedroom. But at Dart's knock both Wanda and her mother hastened to receive them, replenished the fireplace until it roared lustily in its deep throat, found warm, dry clothing and hot drinks, and made them comfortable for the night. If Wanda were "sore" as Dart had expressed it, she did not in any way give evidence of it.
"Them ginneys that go chasing off to climb the North Pole," was Dart's cheery comment as he reappeared from a brief absence in the kitchen, "ain't going to find me choking up the trail in front of 'em. This here is good enough for me."
In the kitchen he had changed his own outer, soaked clothing for a suit of Martin's which Mrs. Leland had given him, and now the general effect of his appearance was that of a very small boy in a very large hat. But he had not forgotten to transfer Wayne's note with the transfer of garments. And when Wanda left the room presently for the sandwich Dart had requested he followed her, his coat and trousers seeming to flow about him and after him with a will of their own.
"Love and kisses from Red," he whispered, handing her the note.
And be it said to the credit of Mr. Willie Dart that, although he had been perfectly aware that there was a steaming kettle of water on the kitchen stove, his haste had been so great to deliver the message that he had not taken time to avail himself of the opportunity.
That night Wanda went quietly about her preparation for to-morrow. Her skis, gathering dust in the attic, were brought down, cleaned and given the thin coat of shellac which, drying by morning, would put them in shape. A glance outdoors showed her that it had stopped raining and was clear and cold. There would be a good crust formed during the night. Shandon's note, which she read more than once, ran:—
"Dear Wanda—Will you try to meet me at your cliff to-morrow? I have something which I must tell you.
All night, waking or sleeping, Wanda was restless and worried. She had guessed swiftly that the thing Wayne was going to tell her had something to do with Helga Strawn; it might also have something to do with Garth and Martin Leland. Garth had been strangely agitated when he burst into the house. Then he and her father were closeted for a long time in the study, their voices at times raised in what sounded like anger, at times lowered almost to whispers. She knew that Martin had gone out to the men's quarters, that Jim had saddled his horse and ridden away upon some errand which must have been born of Garth's coming. She felt that it all was in some way connected with Wayne Shandon and she was a little afraid.
In the morning, as Wanda made her early breakfast alone, a glance outside at the white world showed her that where there had been jagged rocks and logs strewn upon the hillsides, now there were only smooth mounds. Tree stumps and fences, their identity already lost, were hooded things that in another two days would be completely covered and hidden.
The girl buckled her arctics upon her warmly stockinged feet, drew her hood down over her ears, strapped on her skis and slipped on her mittens before she left the kitchen. From the back door which in summer was three feet above ground she pushed her way out upon the level snow. Then, through a white world of silence she moved quietly through the clear, crisp morning.
She arrived early at the cliffs, but already Shandon, although he had travelled further, was before her. For the last quarter of a mile she had travelled in the deeper tracks, which his broader skis and heavier weight had made. Already he had gone ahead of her up the great cedar, as she saw by the branches from which he had scraped the snow. And when she came to the top and peeped into the cave she saw him piling wood upon the fire he had blazing to welcome her.
"God bless you," he said tenderly. "You came."
"Of course I came," she answered. "Now tell me, Wayne. What is it?"
First he made her draw off her sweater and arctics and take the stool he placed at the fire for her.
"Wanda," he began, at last, "I've got something to tell you that's going to be hard telling. I have hoped all along that things would smooth themselves out for us, that in due time your father would come to see that neither he nor any other man has the right to stand in the way of our happiness. But now, dear, there is no hope of that. Matters are bad enough now, God knows. And they are going to get worse. Do you love me very much, Wanda?"
"You know that I do," she answered simply.
"So much that you could cleave to me through everything? Even when the unpleasantness which already exists between your father and me grows into positive, hard, open opposition? On my part as well as his?"
"Is it so bad as that, Wayne?" she asked, her eyes darkening a little.
"Yes," he answered bitterly. "It is worse than you know. You will find it as hard to believe as I found it."
"Tell me." She looked up at him bravely enough, but he knew how this thing hurt her, and how it was going to hurt her when he told everything. Hastily, to have it over with, he repeated Dart's story and told of the quarrel with Garth.
"I believe," he said slowly, "that Dart told me the truth throughout. I don't know how he found it out, but in part I know he was right. Arthur mortgaged the Bar L-M to your father for twenty-five thousand dollars. You know how I went away then, how I authorised Garth to act for me just as though he were the actual owner of the property. Dart says that three months ago the mortgage was foreclosed. That was just before I came home. I heard nothing of it. He swears that he saw the sheriff's certificate of sale to your father. In California law due notice must be served upon a man whose property is threatened with sale to satisfy the holder of the mortgage. From the date of that sale until a year later the original owner has what is termed a year of redemption during which, at any time, upon his paying the amount of the mortgage and all costs, he may regain his property. Do you follow me, Wanda?"
"Yes. Go on, Wayne."
"Had I not been away, had I not furthermore given to Garth my power of attorney, that first service of notice of foreclosure would have come to me. It came to Garth instead; it had to come to him. By his simply ignoring the matter, failing to appear in court or to be represented by a lawyer when the matter was called, he allowed the Bar L-M to be sold to pay the promissory note of twenty-five thousand given by Arthur to your father. Your father bought in the property himself. It is now his and not mine; it would become absolutely his, with clear title, if I should allow this year of redemption to pass without paying off the twenty-five thousand and costs. And that is certainly what would have happened if I had not learned of the whole wretched deal, through Dart, last night."
For a long time she did not answer. Even Wayne Shandon, who thought that he knew how the girl loved and venerated her father, could not guess how deeply this thing cut her. Presently, steadying her voice, she said:
"You are absolutely sure of this, Wayne?"
"No. Not in every detail. But in enough to make me more than ready to believe it, Wanda. Garth himself admitted the mortgage, and confessed that he had known of it all along from the day it was made, and said he knew that your father held it. Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't Mr. Leland tell me? Why have they gone on with their plan of irrigation without making me an offer for the water right without which their whole plan falls to pieces?"
"There is only one thing to do, Wayne. You must come back with me. We must go straight to papa and ask him."
"Wanda," he answered gently, "I have fought this out all night. I hope that never in our lives will there come a time when you ask me to do a thing that I cannot do. Will you try to see this from my point of view? My first thought was to go to your father and to ask him for an explanation, just as it is your first thought. But what good could it do? In a few days now I shall go to the court house in El Toyon. If there was a mortgage, as Dart swears and Garth himself admits, it will be on record there. If notice of foreclosure were properly served, and foreclosure were then made in default of my appearance, or because Garth did not go or send a representative, if the sheriff's certificate of sale was made, the whole transaction will have been placed on record. If all of this is true, Wanda, and I am very much afraid that it is, then, girl of mine, is there any reason in the world why I should go to Martin Leland with it?" His voice had hardened, and though he did not know it, Wanda had noticed the change in tone. "Can't you see," he went on deliberately, "that after the way I have been treated I have the right to expect your father to come to me if there is any explaining to do?"
"I can't believe it," she said faintly, though belief was already strong within her. "Why should my father do a thing like that? Do you know, Wayne, that you are accusing him of a very ugly thing?"
"Yes," he said, his tone suddenly gentle again. "I am sorry for you, Wanda. But can't you see that if this is true there is only one thing in the world for me to do?"
"But," and the question uppermost in her mind demanded repetition, "why should my father so soil his hands."
"Aren't there many reasons? If he really believes that I killed Arthur, if for lack of evidence or for some other reason he feels that the law cannot touch me, wouldn't he come to tell himself—"
"Oh," she cried impetuously, "that would be mean and cowardly! For him to tell himself that robbing you would be justifiable because he was punishing a man he deemed guilty! It would be braver, more like a man, to do it for the hot reason of hatred."
After the silence with which Wayne answered her it was Wanda who again spoke.
"Wayne," she asked quietly, "is this all you have to tell me?"
"No. I want you to understand what I am going to do, what I must do, if this is all true. It is what they have driven me to do, unless I prove myself to be what your father thinks me, a weak willed, worthless do-nothing. You don't want me to be that, Wanda?"
"No," she replied thoughtfully. "I want you to be a man."
"Then," he cried sharply, "there is man's work cut out for me! I have twenty-five thousand dollars and more to raise in a very short time. I have my reply to make to men who have used me as a fool! I have the water that the Dry Valley needs. I can go on with the thing which they have tried to do, I can whip them at their own game, playing mine open with the cards on the table. I can refuse to be the toad under the stone; I can make my fight to have my rights. Against opposition that has been underhanded I can offer opposition that is a man's answer to a challenge. It is they, not I, who began the trouble. Had Martin Leland come to me and asked for a water right, I should have given it to him freely as you know. Why, the woman who came to you last night—"
"Miss Hazleton?" she said very quietly, though the girl's heart was beating hard as she waited for his answer.
"Helga Strawn," he answered bluntly. "Hume's cousin."
Her smile, a little wistful but with a quick flash of gladness, surprised him. And he did not understand when she rose swiftly and came to him and put her arms round his neck.
"I am afraid that I have been naughty, Wayne," she whispered. "No, I'll tell you some other time. Tell me about her."
He told her Helga's vague plan, showed her the chance for him with Ettinger, Norfolk and the stragglers lined up with him.
"I love you, Wanda," he said suddenly at the end. "So much that what you want done is the thing that I must do. But you must see very clearly that the time has come when I must play the man's part or the weakling's."
"First you are going to be very sure? Sure that papa has done this?"
"Then," she said, lifting her face to his, her eyes shining, "if you find it true I want you to do the man's part, Wayne. You knew that I would, didn't you, Wayne?"
"Yes," he whispered. "God bless you, yes."
"And, Wayne, dear—"
"Do you think that Helga Strawn is very beautiful?"
Whereupon he laughed happily at her, and despite the cloud in their sky which had grown suddenly bigger and blacker so that the shadow of it lay across their lives, they were very gay together.
HUME PLAYS A TRUMP
Before Wanda and Wayne had finished making merry over their little luncheon in the cave, each striving bravely to look at the future honestly and unafraid, to look upon the present contentedly, an event had happened that was already shaping their lives in a way which they could not foresee. Sledge Hume had come to the Echo Creek.
During the past night, shortly after the arrival of Garth Conway, Jim had ridden from the range house to the nearest village, something less than a dozen miles down the valley, with orders to telephone a message to Hume. The message, a mystery in itself to Jim, had been clear enough to the man to whom it was sent and had brought him hastening across the fifty miles lying between his ranch in the Dry Lands and the Echo Creek. In the darkness he had come on as far as he could, until the snow stopped him. He had spent the night at a house twenty miles from Leland's place and now, hours before he could reasonably have been expected, he entered Martin's study unceremoniously.
"So there's hell to pay," he said shortly by way of greeting. "The red headed fool has discovered something, has he?"
He flung off his coat and strode to the fireplace. Garth and Leland were together, had been together all morning, planning what was to be done. Hume stared at Leland frowningly and then slowly transferred his regard to Conway.
"I suppose your brains have been leaking out of your mouth again," he said contemptuously.
Garth, his agitation of last night having left him nervous and irritable, retorted hotly.
"Gentlemen," said Leland gravely, "may I remind you that this is hardly a time for personal recriminations? We are not here to quarrel with one another. I sent you word immediately, Mr. Hume, not because I saw any necessity for your coming here but that you might know what we have to expect at the earliest possible moment. Garth and myself have been talking it over—"
"Talking!" exploded Hume angrily. "Well, I didn't come to talk. There's going to be something besides a puling string of words now."
"If you have a suggestion—"
"You bet I have! I've been expecting just this thing ever since you began playing the game with Conway there as a stool pigeon. If we'd have sent him on a trip to Paris and paid his expenses we'd have saved trouble and money. Can I have a drink and something to eat? I'm half starved."
"Certainly. But your suggestion—"
"Is already working. I'm going to make it so hot for Red Shandon that he'll come to time the first show he gets. MacKelvey is on the jump and not over an hour or two behind me. It's time for trumps now, Leland."
Martin jerked his head up at MacKelvey's name and stared at Hume with keen, hard eyes.
"You're making a bold play, Mr. Hume."
"Well?" challenged Hume. "Isn't it high time for it? We might have bought the water from Shandon before and have been better off. You wouldn't stand for it; you had to gobble everything for nothing. We took the chance. It wasn't a bad gamble either, considering Shandon was away the first year and is a fool to boot. But you've lost on it. Now when you go to him and ask for the water he's going to laugh at you. But lock him up, charged with murder, make him believe that we can stretch his neck for him and he'll hang, or by God, he will come to time. Now I want a drink and something to eat. You and Conway can spend the day talking if you like; I've got a day's work cut out ahead of me."
"You're going with MacKelvey?"
Hume laughed and threw back his coat, showing the deputy sheriff's star under it.
"I had Mac swear me in six months ago," he answered. "Yes, I'm going with him."
Martin Leland rose and preceded Hume to the door.
"I shall ask my wife to see that you have something to eat right away," he said quietly. "First, Mr. Hume, I want you to know that Garth has not been doing any talking, as you have suspected."